James A. LindsayJames A. LindsayDec 6, 2016

On Fighting God -- Part I: Introduction

James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt

[After delaying it for a year, I am now publishing a series of essays reviewing, as earnestly as I can, David Silverman's book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World. I intend to review the book chapter-by-chapter, as I have time, and I may do a thorough overall review when I complete the project. My objective is to give it all the credit it is due while commenting upon it (not necessarily critically) from the perspective that led me to write my own book, Everybody Is Wrong About God (which was released on the same day as Silverman's, December 1, 2015). Please feel encouraged to buy and read Silverman's book and, if you are interested, my own. I know I'd be interested in reading side-by-side comparisons, including ones that do not favor my approach.]

The Introduction

To say it up front, I like how David Silverman started his book. I like it not least because he starts by talking about wanting to live forever, and I just wrote my own book about death. Silverman eloquently opens with an emotional appeal to the immortality projects that capture religion, which are ultimately a very large part of their appeal. He writes,

I wish I were wrong. I wish all the good guys went to heaven, the bad guys somehow justly paid for their crimes, and everyone (especially my daughter) lived forever. Indeed, not a single person on earth wants people to live forever more than I do. … But wishing doesn't make it true. We live in the real world, and I make my living telling the truth.

It's aside from my purposes to address these comments, but Silverman hits a very powerful and appropriate note from the beginning with this opening. Religion serves as a mechanism for denying death more strongly than any other function (even than being a moral community, which is a project it directly infuses into its death-denying immortality projects). It's a powerful door to open, as "atheism" is in no way more poignant than in how it differentiates itself from religion on the matter of death.

(Also, David and dear readers, I promise not to turn this into a blow-by-blow run through of his book. My comments on each chapter will be general with specifics strewn in. I just really liked the way he started.)

Overall, Silverman's introduction is really a very clever device. He accomplishes a number of notable things in a very short space without seeming to do more than speak in a very personal way about what brings him to this table.

In his brief introduction, Silverman positions himself as an anti-theistic religion fighter whose tool is a claim upon truth. Truth is a funny and difficult thing in that it's hard to find and always shaded by interpretation, but his remark that "atheists have a monopoly on truth" has a certain ring to it that is difficult to deny. Certainly, they tend to be more epistemologically careful where it comes to claims that we might identify as mythological in nature. Beyond mythological injunctions, this claim is a bit tenuous - many self-described atheists still demonstrate very shoddy abilities to discern truth from falsity and not all are identifiable also as skeptics - but I think it can be generally granted. Whether valid or not, Silverman uses it to give himself a nice tool near the end of the introduction that is legitimately worth quoting, "Indeed, it is my duty as an American, as an atheist, and as a nice person to do what I can to take religion down - not by force, not by law, but by truth." Stopping short of "take religion down," this sentiment is largely the secularist's and the rationalist's credo, and kudos to Silverman for articulating it, especially the "not by...but by truth" part.

That said, the sentiment is troubling in the "take religion down" part because that's distinctly not the secularist's credo (nor the humanist's). Many of our religious friends are also deeply committed to secular values despite their personal beliefs, and they should be our first allies in the fight Silverman describes as being against religion. That fight is against theocracy and religious supremacy, which isn't nearly the same thing. The broad brush Silverman uses here is a problem.

It seems he may have picked it up hoping to emulate the great anti-theistic footsteps of the late Christopher Hitchens, though with perhaps less eloquence (who isn't less eloquent, really?). This Silverman demonstrates by continuing, "And the truth is quite simple: all religions are lies, and all believers are victims," not many words after invoking Hitchens' famous injunction that "religion poisons everything." Well, dogmatism and righteousness do seem to poison everything they touch, but this isn't about adding nuance to Hitchens' polemics. Silverman's tone is clearly going to be pugnacious, if not combative, then, in the firebrand tradition - but we all know that. The questions about it are the motivations and the effects.

Who is impacted by firebrand activism? Well, lots of people. Cautious and careful thinkers who are aligned generally with the firebrand in mentality will be put-off by it, to speak generally, although they may not wholly disagree with it. Other firebrands, in wanting to be whipped up by what they already want to think is right, will be whipped up and motivated to action, including to supporting the authority swinging the figurative whip. Opponents will be shocked in one way or another. Some few with an already open mind will be shaken out of their views and become more considered as a result - this reliably happens. Others will gradually be eroded to acquiescence by what psychologists call mere exposure. Still others will recoil and entrench. If one is going to engage in it, they have a duty to recognize that firebrand activism invokes the now-famous backfire effect as surely as it shakes some people off the edges and fires up the base.

Who, though, applies firebrand activism? Activists qua activists, mostly, which is to say "zealots" (not to be confused with "dicks," which Silverman assures us at some length that he is not). I have a favorite example of a firebrand, and it isn't Christopher Hitchens or David Silverman. The early American Calvinist firebrand Jonathan Edwards, of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" fame, is that archetype.

Should we compare Silverman to Edwards, though? Maybe not, and not merely based upon an introduction, no matter how many misgivings it triggers to a reader familiar with the psychology of tribalism. One of the other positional achievements of Silverman's introduction is to characterize himself as the nice atheist guy who isn't ashamed of who he is and wants to make "atheism" normal for himself and others, especially those who would benefit from his activism (which he seems to believe is everybody, perhaps short of the hucksters posing as clergy). This self-characterization may not be off the mark, and his introduction is effective at selling the point. I'll gladly give it to him as Silverman does come off as generally nice and definitely well-intended.

The concern, and the ultimate likeness to Edwards that would stick with Silverman, isn't so much their firebrandedness (although it's a very reasonable bet that Edwards also believed himself working on the behalf of mankind, those like him in thought, and the timid masses who would benefit from his activism, besides). The likeness that sticks resides in the Manichaean characterizations Silverman gives his movement and its opposition. That is, Silverman sees atheism as involved in some kind of culture war and that his opposition is "malevolent," "a waste," and "deserv[ing] to die." Nihil sub sole novum, they say, or at least Edwards would, familiar as he would have been with Ecclesiastes 1. In any case, if we are going to turn to Latin for this, talis odium theologicum est.

I'm not putting Silverman's aims anything like on par with Calvinism, nor Silverman with its most fiery voices, of course. Neither is he. Silverman's introduction does a good job positioning himself opposite the "lies" of religion. Silverman, perhaps unlike Edwards who was sure to have hated himself every bit as much as his pulpit demonstrated, seems to position himself more as an unseemly hero who will, by having taken up the mantle of greatness (in the form of tee shirts that read "ATHEIST" in big lettering) set free the victims of religious oppression, both inside and outside of the fold, whatever the effort.

His characterization of religion as "lies" is powerful talk, and like all the best lies, it's a convincing half-truth. Obviously, many of the claims of religion are false (to the point of being absurd, frankly), and many others are likely to be lies. Religions, though, are complicated cultural objects, and, though perhaps he corrects this simplifying invective in the bulk of the text that follows, bulldozing them to "lies" misses nearly everything.

The psychologists of religion, Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka, upon whose textbook The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (4th edition) I leaned upon quite heavily while crystallizing the thoughts that led to Everybody Is Wrong About God, are very cautious about approaching what, exactly, constitutes the object of their studies. They spend several pages in their own introduction pointing out how intractable is the problem of defining precisely what constitutes a religion and devote a surprising quantity of ink to the notion that any definition of religion that presents as a "nothing but..." formulation is certainly wrong. "All religions are lies" certainly falls under that inadequate categorization.

Religions are at least a kind of cultural object known as "moral communities," and they are that before they are sets of doctrines, beliefs, traditions, and so on, that define the social realities of those communities. All of the details about religions that could be called "lies" are subsequent to their roles as moral cultures, which doesn't exonerate them so much as demand we treat them for that which they are, moral cultures, not merely sets of ideas.

To call a community a "lie" seems to miss the thing entirely, and this gives me serious misgivings about the approach Silverman is likely to take in the raison d'etre for his book: fighting religion (which makes a lot more sense than fighting "God," in any case). To reduce religions merely to a collection of dishonest statements, and to characterize them as inherently "malevolent," as Silverman does, misses the thing in rather a catastrophic way, which I say fully conscious that the substance of my agreements with Silverman on these points vastly outweighs the disagreements. This is precisely the kind of everything-is-a-nail approach to dealing with religion that I wrote my book to advise against continuing.

All I can gather from this aspect of Silverman's introduction is that he is very motivated to continue making what he deems as progress in a cultural fight against oppression - which is good enough on its own - and that an us-versus-them mentality exactly like I warned about in Everybody Is Wrong About God is his preferred approach.

Silverman therefore holds a bellicose lens to his eye when looking at religion and, furthermore, sees "atheists" as winning the fight. His view through this crystal tells him also that "atheism" is winning specifically by means of being obnoxiously visible and challenging, and perhaps there's something to that. Mere exposure has definitely worn down opposition, many who wouldn't otherwise have surely changed their minds, many (like Cara Santa Maria expressed in her foreword) have found that they aren't the only people who think like they do and have found communities, and key academic, cultural, and legal battles have certainly been won.

Now, I certainly harbor sympathies for the idea that the fight over religion has largely been won, at least at the level of ideas and largely at the level of law (where such victories are probably most tenuous). Where Silverman calls religions "lies," he is speaking primarily to the fact that there are no good reasons to accept the central truth claims religion makes about many aspects of reality, like what happens after death, whether or not a omnipotent deity provides for us in our needs, whether infidels will be punished with unendurable torture eternally while the faithful will be rewarded with unending bliss, whether adhering to this or that moral doctrine will ensure such rewards, and so on. In that way, religions sell a bill of goods that diverges significantly from knowledge and, to be fair, truth. I don't think we have to keep fighting that fight up-top anymore, even if it's going to take a while for the message to get down to the ground level (where "fighting" and "debate" aren't the best delivery methods).

I also argued that the so-called "New Atheism," which I characterized largely as the "no, we won't shut up and pretend we don't exist" type that arose following the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, also won - or, rather, that it achieved its aim. New Atheism made the fact that some people lack belief and don't need to pretend otherwise part of our cultural furniture. I dated the turning of that tide roughly to 2010, which I noted is also approximately when, to my eyes here in the Southeastern US, Richard Dawkins' landmark The God Delusion stopped being controversial and was just increasingly seen (by the faithful) as annoying, rather like an ugly armchair that one's roommate has simply refused to remove for so long that it's become just another part of the décor, even if it is deemed unsightly by everyone else who enters the room.

Of course, it seems that the Nones (those claiming no religion) are growing (whether or not that is true of "atheists"), and it seems likely that the New Atheism has had at least something to do with it (though when I, with co-authors, attempted to float this claim in a popular-venue essay recently, we were told in no uncertain terms that it was too tenuous to make substantively - maybe Silverman will do something to remedy this problem for me). Movements seem to work on some level and are apparently necessary at times. Silverman promises his book will deliver the evidence that his approach is right for effecting the changes for which he hopes, and I look forward to seeing what he has to say in that regard. In any case, I think it's plain that widespread disillusionment with conservative Christianity's perpetual mistreatment of gays, inter alia, did far more to contribute to the rise of the Nones than did movement-style atheism, and no "atheist" doing the equivalent of donning a flight suit and hanging a banner reading "Mission Accomplished!" will do much to revise that point in favor of movement-atheism's vain hope that they, particularly, succeeded.

Culturally, though, to say that "atheism" has won (or is winning) may simply fail to look at the thing broadly enough. For me, the question stopped being about whether Christianity, Islam, and the rest have lost the culture war (and globally, they are winning it in spades, though I digress). It turned to a broader question of greater importance: have moral tribes - that is, the things that are religions in essence if not in particular - lost to freethinking, which is what properly generalizes "atheism"? The answer is a clear no, no matter how we look at it. Our politics have become completely balkanized and tribal, our religions are more deeply entrenched than ever (and spreading, at least outside of the secular West, which is also apparently stumbling), and even "atheism" has taken on such a tribal appearance that it is thoroughly denominationalized. "Atheists" might have more room to feel true to themselves in our culture now, but that which religion is in essence is in full revival, with "atheism" so often just another small but obnoxious tent on the mall. That I fear Silverman's approach (I shouldn't say "deliberately") contributes to these issues is a succinct summary on its own about why I have been commenting upon his book in the manner I have been so far.

Even so, I don't think Silverman is wrong to say "we ['atheists'] are winning" (emphasis original), I'm just not sure I'd be so general or would choose the present continuous verb tense for the description. As I argued in Everybody Is Wrong About God, we (approximately "New Atheists" and their cultural beneficiaries) have won some decisive battles in a broader culture war and should move on to a new phase - fostering the generalization of secularism (a view that people have different opinions and even worldviews and aren't evil because of it) and morally de-escalated discussion. In that, my concern is perhaps expressible by the metaphor that Silverman's book looks like it will take a tack akin to sending Sherman back to Georgia with more torches just as the Reconstruction is getting underway. (In Everybody Is Wrong, I use the analogy that New Atheism was like a can opener that successfully opened the can but isn't the right tool to keep using to extract the beans inside - and our goal is to eat, not to keep cutting up the steel.)

As a final point about Silverman's introduction, I also don't think he is wrong to position himself as a "conclusionary" atheist, meaning someone who has considered what religion has to offer and concluded that it cannot be true and thus shouldn't be accepted as such. In fact, it seems fair to say that he appreciates what religion offers - his eloquent opening illustrates this - and stoically rejects it in favor of truth (and, for being, to come back to the word, "malevolent"). I recognize how this point-of-view works, of course, and I argued against it in Everybody Is Wrong as well. I wrote, "It is often said that 'atheism is a conclusion,' but this is just an artifact of theistic indoctrination and its cultural prevalence. Absent those, nonbelief just is what is." (p. 25)

In fact, I would go further and insist that such a declaration is largely a popular social identity marker that isn't substantively different than being "born again." To brand oneself a "conclusionary atheist," is to signify a kind of rebirth into self-professed superior reasoning abilities. More accurately, it would be into a moral tribe that places high value on the application of those allegedly superior reasoning abilities to exactly one question, but I again digress. More importantly, I'm willing to see what Silverman does with his designation as a conclusionary atheist other than to insist that truth is on his side - hoping to save not sinners in the hands of an angry God but duped victims in thrall to manipulative clergy. My earnest hope is that it's more than what it seems to be: another branding image by which his moral tribe can continue to fail to be persuasive and succeed at being divisive.

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