The Skeptic’s Smart-Person Problem – By Ryan T. Woods

Ryan T. Woods May 26, 2015 1

Ryan T. Woods on intelligence and religious belief

Why are religious beliefs so common among the masses, yet so rare among intellectuals?

Meditating on this question, the sociologist Peter Berger once described America as a Sweden superimposed upon an India. By this jarring characterization, he contrasted the secularity of the cultural elite (the Swedes) and the spirituality of average citizens (the Indians). The divide seems formidable these days. In a recent survey, only fourteen percent of philosophers in the Anglophone world identified as theists. Scientists are collectively less religious than their fellow citizens, with the most eminent being the most jaundiced about numinous matters.

The chasm separating Swedes from Indians has long intrigued pollsters, scholars of religion, and historians — not least because of its implications for public education and government policy. Despite consensus among scientists on evolution, two-fifths of all Americans favor replacing Darwinian theory with creationism in public school curricula. Americans are nearly as likely to interpret natural cataclysms as portents of the apocalypse as they are to view them as symptoms of climate change. Prescriptions advanced in the name of scientific progress often meet with resistance from a fervently religious public.

Skeptics find it hard to resist gaping at the credulity of their religious counterparts, but they are even more aghast when members of their own tribe take up religion. Why would anyone discard reason to embrace superstition? How does a citizen of the modern world continue to believe a farrago of ancient myths? How do persons of faith resist the skepticism about supernatural matters that science and philosophy are supposed to develop?

Philosopher John Messerly grappled with these tribal defections in a recent Salon column entitled, “Religion’s Smart-People Problem: The Shaky Intellectual Foundations of Absolute Faith.” Observing that religious convictions have become rare among the intelligentsia, he maintains that scientists and philosophers have discovered what eludes the masses: belief rests on discreditable foundations. Evolutionary biology exposes religion as nothing more than the residue of past adaptations. Not only has religion become vestigial; it also incubates social dysfunction. These truths he holds to be self-evident — at least to the informed. So why would any educated person continue to believe?

Religious skeptics can be every bit as myopic as religious fundamentalists.

Messerly attributes the continued religiosity of these outliers to a combination of self-deception, dissimulation, and dissidence. Some believers become adept at defending convictions they developed for non-intellectual reasons. Others simply misrepresent their beliefs while privately entertaining doubts or esoteric doctrines. Whatever the explanation, rational warrant forms no part of it. Religious persons believe out of caprice, pathology, or social necessity, but never on grounds that can be justified at the bar of reason. Deep down, they know it, too. There is thus a moralizing dimension to Messerly’s analysis. The decision to retain one’s creed in the teeth of the evidence reflects cowardice. Educated persons who have matured beyond childhood will discard these beliefs and embrace life in all its “bleakness and beauty.”

However appealing the account Messerly peddles might be to critics of religion, it fails to represent the complex dynamics of faith among the educated. The value of the article — and the reason for such a lengthy reflection on it — lies rather in the anatomy of religious criticism it reveals, and the direction toward more meaningful dialogue it suggests. Messerly’s polemic demonstrates how religious skeptics can be every bit as myopic as religious fundamentalists, and how greater awareness of social context and cultural relativity can enliven unimaginative conversations about belief and disbelief.

Part of Messerly’s problem comes from lack of clarity and focus. Frequently, he conflates theistic conviction with religious affiliation. These subjects are related, but distinct. Not all religions are theistic, and the convictions individuals articulate may vary from the doctrines institutional authorities promulgate. The growing ranks of religiously unaffiliated “nones” — nearly two-thirds of whom continue to believe in God — illustrate the need for a more rigorous taxonomy.

More disconcertingly, he takes for granted that “religion” identifies an entity with analytic content and clearly demarcated boundaries. This assumption creates problems because religion is not a native taxon with self-evident properties. As Jonathan Z. Smith illustrated in his catalogue of the terms “religion,” “religions,” and “religious” in Western discourse, these categories are “imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture.” The activity of naming a phenomenon can easily become a means of articulating power relationships. Whoever devises the nomenclature can manipulate the content. That the taxonomists of religion have tended to be travelers and theorists of colonial powers, seeking to impose orderly schemas on the varieties of devotion that empire surfaces ought to give pause to those engaged in this enterprise today.

Just how Messerly would construe “religion” is hard to disentangle from the gauzy web of generalizations that clutter the article. His use of the term appears to refer to convictions about God held by individuals and reinforced by participation in communities. (In fact, this clarifies matters very little: conceptions of the gods vary as much as the cultic practices that communities evolve over time to express or cultivate these beliefs.) His portrayal of believers as untutored exotics who cling to discredited beliefs bears some resemblance to the commentary of colonial theorists on the fetishes of colonized peoples. The superstitious natives who continue to believe, in his estimate, have not yet graduated to the more evolved state of jettisoning these delusions. If the reader takes his eyes off the hypertext, Messerly’s depictions might have been taken from a European travel narrative in the early modern period. This comparison might appear extravagant, but it is common to see critics assailing religion as a recrudescence of “tribal” practices. Such descriptions have consequences. This jejune analysis of religion and its “suburban love affair” with the Enlightenment myth of progress (Terry Eagleton) generates a system of beliefs that is remarkably congenial to neo-imperial ambitions. In its more pernicious varieties, it perpetuates Islamophobia and related disorders.

Messerly’s portrayal of religious believers bears some resemblance to the commentary of colonial theorists on the fetishes of colonized peoples.

To draw on yet another colonial trope that Messerly favors near the end of his screed, religious subjects are children suspended in a state of arrested development. They need to rid themselves of beliefs that lack plausibility and nurture social pathologies. With exposure to scientific evidence that higher education affords, most reasonable people repudiate their faith in God along with their beliefs in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Obama’s forged birth certificate. Only a minority continue trusting in their atavistic creeds. Under normal conditions, uncivilized natives assimilate into the modern world. Indians naturally become Swedes.

Cultural imperialism has become untenable because it depends on ethnocentric assumptions that lack evidentiary support and critical self-awareness. Messerly’s article displays these same chauvinistic attitudes, and shares many of their vulnerabilities. For all his glorification of empirical support, he fails to provide much convincing evidence. The edifice of his argument rests upon the shaky foundations of questionable presuppositions, flawed logic, and convenient misrepresentations. What issues from the article, then, is not an enlightened rationalism, but fundamentalist materialism.

Consider Messerly’s assumption that a scientific account of religious beliefs disproves the existence of any supernatural entities these beliefs reference. This reductionistic conceit governs the argument but never receives any sustained defense. Messerly devotes several paragraphs to providing an evolutionary account of religious experience and then proceeds as if this narrative exposes religion as all too human. To be sure, the behavior of genomes in changing environments illuminates much about the dynamics of belief. The natural and social sciences offer rich resources for understanding religious phenomena. But it is another matter entirely for mechanics to masquerade as metaphysics. His observations may be correct, but the conclusion Messerly draws requires further speculation. After all, demonstrating that religious beliefs are a product of evolution no more disproves those beliefs than showing that empirical measurement and mathematical reasoning are products of evolution undermines their validity. To put it another way, science offers convincing evidence for explaining religious belief, but less convincing evidence for explaining religious belief away.

Other dogmas Messerly deems unassailable lie similarly exposed to objections. He invokes Clifford’s dictum — that one should never assent to any belief without sufficient evidence — as if he were quoting chapter and verse from positivist scripture. It is a noble ideal, but impracticable in many important matters. In his celebrated essay, “The Will to Believe,” William James explored how impoverished life would be if one scrupulously followed this doctrine. As James sees it, belief is an intrinsically risky enterprise. Many important matters in life — which tenets to believe, whom to love, which Parisian restaurant to patronize during a one-night layover — offer choices with underdetermined evidence or with rough epistemic parity among them. These decisions reveal how much nonrational factors condition reason, a dimension of human experience that behavioral economists and social psychologists have been exploring for years.

Science offers convincing evidence for explaining religious belief, but less convincing evidence for explaining religious belief away.

By insisting on apportioning faith to the evidence, Clifford and his disciples privilege avoiding error above pursuing truth. James puts this exchange of “dupery through hope” for “dupery through fear” into question. This “snarling logicality” requires not just epistemic severity but social renunciation, since benefits flow from trust without proof. Trust seems ineradicable from the human experience. Indeed, those who make material evidence the condition for faith often find themselves unconsciously forming beliefs without material evidence. “The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricists upon reflection; when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes,” James tartly observes. It is better for us, he suggests, to believe without proof than to foreclose on truth so that we won’t get fooled again.

Then there is the question of what counts as sufficient evidence. Richard Dawkins quipped that if he ever met God, he would have only three words to say: not enough evidence. This seems disingenuous when one surveys the sprawling corpus Dawkins has disgorged to demonstrate that God does not exist. As James says of the attitudes of Clifford’s disciples toward evidence, “insufficiency is really the last thing they have in mind. For them the evidence is absolutely sufficient, only it makes the other way. They believe so completely in the [anti-theistic] order of the universe that there is no living option … .” Not the evidence, but the interpretation of the evidence is in question.

Evidence for interpretation might be drawn from nearly any facet of human experience. The order and complexity of the natural world, the consciousness of moral obligations, and the widespread perception of numinous presence all represent what theologian Karl Rahner designates the “transcendent horizon.” These phenomena demand interpretation.

Even if one finds none of the traditional proofs individually sufficient, taken together they form an account of human experience that is adequate, coherent, and satisfying. This is the gambit Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne has adopted. In a magisterial trilogy on natural theology, Swinburne recasts traditional arguments for the existence of God in terms of Bayesian probability. Alvin Plantinga deems this case for the existence of God about as persuasive as any philosophical argument. From Proudfoot to Alston, analytic philosophers have followed James in reconsidering the epistemological status of religious experience. Plantinga and others have also gained notoriety for challenging the presumption of atheism — a principle that places the onus of proof on the theist by endorsing a default position of atheism. Given the near-universality of belief in divinity, a presumption of theism — or at least a presumption of agnosticism — seems just as plausible. At the very least, atheists should furnish positive evidence for the nonexistence of God. None of this settles the questions of whether Clifford was right or whether the theist carries the burden of proof. But it indicates that these questions are far from settled. It should complicate the simplistic picture that Messerly limns by indicating that many religious intellectuals feel justified in their beliefs.

The evidence Messerly deploys to support his argument — that smart people continue to believe in God because they prefer belief to knowledge — is a tangled skein of statistics and curiosities held together by a thin tissue of conjecture. He curates this data to fit his impression that skeptics are a courageous and educated race, while believers are either deluded simpletons or self-deceived conformists. This smug presentation conceals a paucity of compelling arguments.

At times, Messerly seems aware that his evidence is weak. He trumpets survey results that show philosophers and scientists rejecting theism, then promptly concedes that polls alone do not entail that God does not exist. This qualification allows him to avoid a fallacious appeal to authority, but he offers little else to shore up his conclusion that educated theists are aberrations. Here, a comparison of surveyed responses on the question of God to a range of philosophical opinions on other significant issues would be useful. Many philosophers are not specialists in the philosophy of religion, and so the levels of expertise to pronounce on the question of God will vary considerably.

Similarly, his narrow focus on elite scientists obscures the more receptive attitudes toward religion many scientists entertain. A detailed discussion of sociological context and the reasons for this skepticism might also illuminate the matter. Perhaps it is too much to ask for this level of detail in an article, but the absence of context undercuts the evidentiary value of his statistics.

Messerly follows much the same procedure in his treatment of religion and pathology. A country survey correlating religiosity and social dysfunction provides the basis for innuendo, but little else. Another qualification appears, this time designed to avoid the error of equating correlation with causation. Messerly acknowledges that some evidence attests that religious persons can use their illusions for salutary purposes. But if he vacillates on this point, the next sentence takes back any concessions with a vengeance: “Despite all this most people still accept some religious claims … .” So much for nuance.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Given the title, one might expect to see extensive interaction with educated believers. Instead, readers are treated to a carnival of caricatures. Messerly litters his article with the corpses of straw men. He only invokes religious philosophers by name to show the poverty of fideism. He mentions an anonymous philosopher who doubts the truths of evolution but believes he can demonstrate that God exists as Trinity to reveal the distorting effects of religious belief on right thinking. In neither case do we encounter their reasoning.

Another line of evidence suggests that although there are many narratives of believers losing faith with more education, there are few stories of atheists becoming theists later in life. I suppose that this makes Francis Collins, G.E.M. Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and (though only God knows for sure) Leszek Kolakowski outliers. That list should also include Antony Flew, a life-long skeptic and author of a seminal article on the presumption of atheism. As an octogenarian, he became a theist. His commitment to “follow the argument wherever it leads” ended with faith in God.

The absence of mature religious perspectives is not unusual in this literature. In an interview, Marilynne Robinson noted that many critics drop out of religion at the age of twelve and then spend the rest of their lives attacking a twelve-year-old’s conception of religion. Likewise, Terry Eagleton derides such accounts as propagating an “abysmally crude, infantile version of what theology has traditionally maintained.” That may explain the caricatures that populate some polemics, but not this one. More than likely, Messerly’s training and professional life have put him in close contact with educated believers. He earned advanced degrees in philosophy at St. Louis University, a Jesuit university with a sterling reputation in philosophy of religion. There he trained under Richard Blackwell, a distinguished scholar whose careful research on the Galileo affair has earned admiration from those in the guild. For years, Messerly taught at Ursuline, a Catholic liberal arts college near Cleveland. Apparently, he sees no tension in writing, “Religion may help us in the way that whisky helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk,” while collecting paychecks for teaching at Seattle University, another Jesuit institution. To be sure, I consider it beneficial for religious schools to hire skeptics to teach philosophy classes, because these free thinkers challenge students to examine the foundations of their beliefs. Socrates unsettled his interlocutors this way, and I trust that Messerly makes it his mission to do the same with his pupils. Yet it seems strange that, despite his long affiliation with Catholic institutions, he engages in such shallow interactions with educated religious believers.

When one avoids dialogue with one’s opponents, it is easier to exaggerate the flaws in their position, but harder to see the flaws in one’s own. As anthropologists have discovered in the field, approaching subjects without condescending assumptions reveals the researcher’s own contingency and relativity, but chauvinism confirms the researcher in his own idiosyncrasies. Unsurprisingly, Messerly seems blind to how easily his commentary on the psychology of belief might be applied to his own disbelief. Consider the following statements:

It is self-evident from the fact that religions are predominant in certain geographical areas but not others, that birthplace strongly influences religious belief. This suggests that people’s religious beliefs are, in large part, accidents of birth.

The simplest answer is that people believe what they want to, what they find comforting, not what the evidence supports: In general, people don’t want to know; they want to believe.

… smart persons are good at defending ideas that they originally believed for non-smart reasons. They want to believe something, say for emotional reasons, and they then become adept at defending those beliefs.

Why is all this important? Because human beings need their childhood to end; they need to face life with all its bleakness and beauty, its lust and its love, its war and its peace. They need to make the world better. No one else will.

Disbelief is not immune from the same social conditions that govern belief. Turning the analysis on religious critics reveals suggestive continuities. Few persons outside the West or countries that prohibit religious expression grow up without some nominal religious commitment. Even national indifference or antagonism toward religious matters is often the residue of historical experience. For this reason, skepticism tends to be parasitic on belief and the institutions that nurture belief. Dysfunctional religious traditions provide germinal soil for the tendrils of religious criticism to flower. In particular, militant varieties of disbelief flourish in contexts of religious venality, hypocrisy, and corruption. Nikolai Berdyaev was right to begin his exploration of Russian anti-religious psychology with Russian religious psychology, for they stand in dialectical tension. In the lives of individuals, the origins of religious criticism vary but tend to coalesce around a common trajectory. A traumatic experience — often with institutional religion or its representatives — implants the seeds of doubt, and these seeds frequently send down roots in educated contexts, where one encounters other skeptics. Because those in middle and upper classes have greater access to higher education, it is comparatively rare to find atheists among the poorest social strata. Most strikingly, atheists skew young and male: a Pew survey found that nearly two thirds of their number was male, and about 40% were under the age of thirty. If higher education leads one to perceive the truth of atheism, so apparently does being a twenty-eight year old man. The sociology of disbelief is even more determined than the sociology of belief.

Skepticism tends to be parasitic on belief and the institutions that nurture belief. Dysfunctional religious traditions provide germinal soil for the tendrils of religious criticism to flower.

Just as acolytes of religion embrace religion for non-smart reasons, so also critics of religion may become adversaries for non-smart reasons — and their education may make them even more adept at defending their disbelief than their believing counterparts. The questions of God and religion are not neutral, antiseptic questions. Those who resist belief experience psychological and personal incentives for arriving at their conclusions just as believers do. In his philippic against relativism, The Last Word, Thomas Nagel captures the vertiginous sensation that many atheists (and perhaps some theists) experience in thinking about the existence of God: “I want atheism to be true, and I am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, I hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

If God does exist, there are consequences as well as compensations — many of which make significant demands upon the believer. Nagel seems to concede Berdyaev’s observation: “Much more, not less, is demanded of Christians than … of materialists.” Nagel settles with Messerly on the side of skepticism. But unlike Messerly, he acknowledges that the deliberations remain freighted with seductive psychological and social motivations.

Is there any hope to improve the state of this conversation? Reading articles like Messerly’s, it is tempting to see Swedes and Indians occupying incommensurable cultures, interpreting experience in contradictory ways, and communicating in different theoretical languages. Postmodernity has confirmed us in our skepticism about the prospects of discourse across tribal boundaries. Empirical research further substantiates these misgivings. As numerous studies attest, bias colors our reception of concepts that challenge our convictions. If people hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest, dialogue will always be difficult. What people hear, of course, depends upon who makes the most noise and whose opinions are amplified through the distorting channels of social media. Unsurprisingly, the most strident voices dominate the conversation. When dogmatists govern the exchange, the only interest in following the conversation is to see which side exhausts the lexicon of abuse first. The obstacles, then, remain daunting.

But these obstacles are not insurmountable, and the conversation between the faithful and the faithless seems important enough to pursue.

What makes Messerly’s tract so frustrating is its lack of imagination at a time when so many insightful engagements with religion and the question of God are appearing on both sides of the debate. There is no dearth of penetrating critiques of religion. Skeptics might replace the nostrums of Dawkins and Hitchens with the reflections of a scientist like Frans de Waal or a religious scholar like Anthony Pinn. In seeking to understand religious psychology, they might take up Jonathan Haidt’s volume The Righteous Mind. At the popular level, the movement toward “faitheism,” and the secular liturgics of Alain de Botton, provide rich resources for moving beyond what a friend of mine playfully designated “identity atheism.”

Likewise, persons of faith and their sympathetic analysts offer interdisciplinary reflection on the changing dynamics of religion and belief. Robert Wuthnow (in The God Problem) and Tanya Luhrmann (in When God Talks Back) have offered rigorous and sensitive alternatives to reductionistic accounts. Charles Taylor’s magisterial analysis of secularity deserves mention (as does that of his critics, like Jacques Berlinerblau). So do Sarah Coakley’s efforts to reimagine the categories of theology within the matrix of scientific discourse in her Gifford Lectures. The publications of the late philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and the theorist Terry Eagleton offer theoretical reflections on religion and its critics. Religious topics have fascinated both continental thinkers from Marion to Badiou, as well as analytic philosophers from Plantinga to Alston. Despite the challenges to dialogue, this panoply of resources opens up new vistas for exploration to those bored with stale, unimaginative polemics.

Unsurprisingly, the most strident voices dominate the conversation. When dogmatists govern the exchange, the only interest in following the conversation is to see which side exhausts the lexicon of abuse first.

In addition to expanding the canon of resources that inform such discussions, we might adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to human reason. Here, anthropology’s treatment of “reasonableness” as a cultural product might help to expose the social and historical relativity of reason itself, as well as to appreciate how it operates in the religious psyche. This approach proceeds from a couple of empirical observations with important implications. One begins by observing that, even among the educated, deliberative rationality matters less than standards of reasonableness. As Albert Camus caustically observed, no one is willing to die for the ontological argument. Few individuals take up religion because an apologist demonstrates the existence of God, and few theists abandon their beliefs because a skeptic falsifies an apologist’s demonstration. What matters more is what unites them: both express their convictions in the vernacular of reasonableness.

In his study of “the God Problem,” Robert Wuthnow analyzes how believers negotiate apparent tensions of their beliefs with modern intuitions by speaking in a language compatible with cultural norms of reasonableness. One best discerns the contours of these criteria when someone violates them. Wuthnow instances Pat Robertson’s pronouncement that his prayers had diverted a hurricane from devastating CBN headquarters in 1985. Not only avowed secularists, but also committed believers denounced these comments as irresponsible. But tensions appear in more mundane matters as well. In his careful analysis, Wuthnow observed a number of occasions when his subjects retreated into vague generalities about mystery when confronted with a potential controversy, or glossed objectionable statements with comments like, “Well, that sounded strange; I don’t want to seem weird.” These episodes reflect the speakers’ awareness that they were transgressing normative criteria for reasonableness.

As cultural anthropologists have long recognized, the canons of reasonableness vary significantly. This indicates that the principles that structure reasonable discourse and behavior are social constructions. Recurrent nightmares might lead us to stop eating smoked chicken wings so close to bedtime, or to seek pharmacological or therapeutic remedies. But in a remote Balinese village or Gambian settlement, consultation with a shaman is axiomatic. In Carolingian times, one might see a priest. Rather than depreciate this behavior as irrationality, we might instead ponder how the “plausibility structures” (à la Berger) at play in different cultures condition various responses to the same stimulus. Perhaps we might reconsider how our own reasonableness bears the imprints of historical and cultural contingency. This is certainly true when we consider how reason evaluates religion — and how religion evaluates reason — in different cultures. Over a century ago, Durkheim charted this territory: “In reality, then, there are no religions which are false. All are true in their own fashion; all answer, though in different ways, to the given conditions in human existence.”

An appreciation of cultural relativity does not necessarily sanction a thoroughgoing philosophical relativism. Descriptive analysis does not translate directly to normative prescriptions. Nor does acknowledging that others interpret experience and construct rationality differently mean we agree with them. Most ethnographers who conduct fieldwork in Bali and Gambia consult gastroenterologists for their dyspepsia and therapists for their neuroses when they return to North America.

This realization has practical implications that those discussing metaphysical topics might consider. Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled Dan Kahan, a law professor and environmental activist who has achieved success by recognizing the power of “cultural cognition” in reform. The problem, he suggests, is not distrust of science, but “motivated reasoning” conditioned by different cultural values. Kahan’s agitation for ecological stewardship in Florida focused less on browbeating residents with the facts than reshaping how they valued those facts. A skeptic who finds the existence of God untenable and organized religion distasteful might consider the “cultural cognition” involved in the formation of religious convictions — as well as how motivated reasoning might affect her own skepticism. This self-awareness might foster sympathy and civility in her interactions with those who come to different conclusions. In sum, his strategy affords better understanding, and richer dialogue than does a condescending rationalism that dismisses the opinions of others as cognitive deficiencies buttressed by social dysfunction.

An exemplar of this approach is Anthony Pinn, an outspoken humanist who recently reflected on his conversation with theists in an interview with this publication. Pinn pulls no punches, but he retains a degree of humility and respect that has become a rare commodity in such conversations:

While I disagree with theists, I understand that productive struggle against injustice requires cooperation and collaboration. So, it becomes important to develop the ability to disagree with ideas and philosophies of life, and to do so with energy, but also to respect and appreciate the people who hold to those ideas and philosophies. The idea of God has protected believers from obligation and accountability — a type of vaccine against realism. However, I do understand and appreciate that for theists who care for and about me, their reference to God, and their statements such as “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you,” is their effort to give me their best … . So, this is to appreciate the sentiment, the effort, while disagreeing with the structure, the framing, and the symbols of that concern and effort. It can be a delicate balance; yet, it is important.

Pinn pursues a number of remarkable strategies in this sound bite. He begins by placing disagreement within the pursuit of common goods. When was the last time you saw a partisan or critic of religion place such a discussion in the context of shared values? Prefacing the dialogue this way makes disagreement productive, and even collaborative, because it can serve purposes that both can claim. He continues by distinguishing between theories and theorists. We have moral obligations to show basic civility toward persons, even if we find their ideas unwarranted by the evidence. This civility extends to the manner in which such persons articulate themselves and demonstrate care. The expression, “God bless you,” does not elicit paroxysms of rage and litanies of contempt from Pinn as it might from more aggressive critics of religion. Rather, he perceives such statements emanating from good will, conveyed in the indigenous dialects of charity.

None of this entails his assent to their worldview. Indeed, he casts a gimlet eye upon the way theists exploit the idea of God to insulate themselves from responsibility. Before believers dismiss this observation or parry it with defenses, it is important to recognize the ways in which Pinn’s indictment might be true. Crusaders despoiling Jewish enclaves in the name of Christ, Muslim fundamentalists intoning “Allahu Akbar” before detonating explosives to destroy infidels, and slaveholders fingering New Testament injunctions to support the systemic violence of chattel slavery all ought to make theists circumspect. Minorities in particular have suffered when believers in power appeal to God to justify their regimes of exclusion, marginalization, and oppression. There is an element of truth to Pinn’s description, just as Freud was right to see psychological neuroses at the basis of certain religious phenomena, and Marx was right to catalogue the ways that religion has functioned as an instrument of economic oppression.

Internalizing the critique doesn’t mean that the theist is without response. The faithless have been nearly as complicit in systems of violence as the faithful. If the idea of God can offer umbrage for misbehavior, it also offers valuable constraints. The regimes most antagonistic to religion have been among the most lethal in human history. It is also fair to point out that the reductionism of many religious critics is questionable: their descriptions fail to explain all the manifold diversity of religious experience, and they have not succeeded in discrediting the objects of belief. Pinn’s vivid, epigrammatic analogy of belief in God as “a vaccine against realism” is likewise open to scrutiny. We vaccinate to protect ourselves from destructive contagions. Is “realism” as a political and philosophical worldview a good, or a theory against which we should inoculate ourselves? Are there limits to this privileging of the here and now, and advantages to a transcendental framing of existential problems?

I doubt that a brief essay like mine can resolve the differences that separate myself from Pinn, or Swedes from Indians. But Pinn’s approach makes him a more charitable interlocutor than Messerly, and permits broader engagement. He doesn’t expect religious persons to change their minds or alter their manner of speech, but he enlists them in a common purpose. Indeed, his comment reminds me of a stray pronouncement by Albert Camus, one of his inspirations:

I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all. On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.

That seems the best avenue for smart persons — both religious and non-religious — to make progress together, despite their differences.

  • Ron Cooper

    As a person who has to intellectually straddle the great divide that these two opinions represent, I just want to say that a synthesis of these two opposites is possible. It begins when we realize the definition of religion as “belief in God” is far too narrow and woefully inadequate. Belief in God isn’t the issue. It is all the other stuff that religion contains, such as outdated beliefs, intolerance, and ethnocentricity to name a few.

    After thinking about it for a while, it seems to me that a person’s religion is the image of reality that they believe, and the actions that they do that come from these beliefs. (If you think about it for a week or two this should become clear to you.)

    Using this definition we can see that everyone has a religion and that the debate is about which person’s image is best. No one has the truth. Instead we have intellectual images, loving images, honorable images, awakened images, etc.

    I would be happy to work on this synthesis if anyone is interested.