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Old 07-31-2009, 09:28 AM
thprop thprop is offline
Join Date: Nov 2006
Location: Chicago, IL
Posts: 373
Default Jerry Coyne: Robert Wrights faitheist manifesto

Bob has a weird piece in the New York Times. Jerry Coyne takes him apart.

Robert Wrights faitheist manifesto

A couple of days ago I published a review in The New Republic of Robert Wrights new book, The Evolution of God. Although Wright claims that he doesnt believe in God, the book was a very strange attempt to give people evidence for divinity in the world, with that divinity manifested as a transcendent force that pulls humanity towards every-greater morality. (The increasing morality, which constituted the evolution of God, was, says Wright, a byproduct of increasing interaction between peoples, which required them to change their theologies in a more inclusive direction.)

Wrights effort was intended, I think, to give solace to people longing for assurance of the existence of God (or its euphemism, what he calls a transcendent source of meaning); a way to let them know that there was still some divine purpose guiding the world, even if those vociferous and pesky atheists have dispelled the idea of God as a bearded old man who answers prayers. I called the book chicken soup for the brain a way to let people who believe in God still feel smart.

One of my friends, who saw Wright on television talking with Bill Moyers, allowed that Wright may have been affected by his Southern Baptist upbringing, so that, although he says hes not qualified to pass judgment on Gods existence, the scent of faith still clings to him. Many faitheists have had a devoutly religious upbringing, and cannot bear to admit that religion is bunko.

Today Wright has a bizarre essay in The New York Times online confirming that his upbringing produced his faitheistic belief that, whether or not God exists, religion is good for you.

Wright notes that despite rejecting his Baptist upbringing, he still is plagued by guilt and the longing for a sky-father to expiate it.

Which raises the question: If I no longer believe in a personal God, looking down and judging me, why do I still feel guilt over my wrongdoings and shortcomings? Why do I still want some father figure (a God, ideally, though a resurrected version of my dad would do) to pat me on the shoulder and tell me Ive done O.K. and can now go play golf for a millennium or so? Is godlessness not, in fact, as some born-again atheists seem to promise, a path to happiness? And, anyway, where did this need for forgiveness and affirmation come from?

He suggest natural selection as one explanation, since it may have built the sense of conscience into the human psyche as a way of ensuring harmonious societies. Religion then came along to codify that conscience as an awareness of sin, but also as a way of allowing absolution for that sin. But this isnt enough for Wright he wants to think, even if the traditional God doesnt exist that the sin-and-absolution cycle is good:

But why, now that El Paso and Christianity are both in the rear view mirror, do I still feel that I could use a born-again experience? Why, if I dont believe in heaven, do I still want something you could call salvation? . . The sense I got back in El Paso was that salvation wasnt just about taking the bath and believing in Christ. Sure, that was the technical pre-requisite for getting to heaven. But a thoroughgoing sense of salvation a sense of being a truly good Christian depended on, for example, pursuing a calling, finding the career path that allows you to do the most good for the world. . .Besides, its the sense of sin, the sense of human frailty, the deep Calvinist suspicion of yourself, that can keep the self-dramatization in check. Salvation, at the most abstract level, is the sense that youre on the right side of the moral law, and the sense of sin is what keeps you not-quite-sure that you are.

There you have it. Yes, you may be ridden with guilt about masturbating, or having sex outside of marriage, or not having gone to Mass, but its all good. Religious belief helps us find meaningful jobs! And religion keeps you moral! What better statement of faitheism could there be?

Of course, theres not the slightest evidence that the religious guilt/absolution cycle keeps us in line or makes us good. (Atheists also seem to have no trouble finding their calling.) In fact, as I argue in my essay, theres plenty of reasons to think the opposite that those who reject God are just as moral as the faithful. Ive never seen any of the religion-defenders respond to this statement, though they continue to harp wearyingly on the need for faith as a wellspring of morality.

And, in the end, Wright cant help claiming once again that religiously based morality is evidence for that transcendent source of meaning, his code language for God. (If you dont think theyre equivalent, read the reviewers.)

You can be an atheist and feel that theres such a thing as right and wrong, and that youll try to align your life with this moral axis. In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a moral order out there. I even think its fair to suspect that theres a purpose unfolding on this planet, leaving aside the much tougher question of whats behind the purpose.

But, for my money, theres nothing quite like the idea that whats behind that purpose is something that can approve or disapprove of you. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps your life mattering, even when its only a feeling, and no longer a belief.

I ask Wright: if theres nothing to justify faith, but if theres transcendent meaning out there, where does that meaning come from? Whos running the show?

After I read Wrights book, I was puzzled at the attention he got from intellectuals like Bill Moyers, Andrew Sullivan, and now The New York Times. His book is deeply confused, you dont have to know much theology to see that his description of religion is tendentious at best, and his argument that the moral advance of society is evidence for God is simply wrong (there are plenty of alternative explanations for that advance). But I am slowly realizing that faitheism runs deep, very deep. Even atheists intellectuals want to pat the faithful on the head: theres a lot of mileage to be gained by attacking the new atheists, even if you share their feelings about God. Indeed, some of the positive reviews of The Evolution of God have come from those who say that it gives believers relief and intellectual ballast against athiests.

Im sorry, but if you are an atheist, it is simply condescending to tell people that their mistaken beliefs beliefs with which you dont agree are just fine because, after all, even if youre not going to heaven and your prayers arent being answered, its good for you and the world that you continue to have these mistaken beliefs. It is even more condescending and cynical for someone like Wright, who doesnt accept God, to tell people that theres scientific evidence for a transcendent source of meaning out there. If thats not God, what is it?

Finally, Id like just one of these faitheists to grapple honestly with the observation that, as the atheist bus slogan says,You can be good without God. Entire countries like Sweden and Denmark are atheistic and yet moral indeed, more moral than the religion-ridden U.S. Doesnt that tell us that we dont need religion?
Even a blind man knows when the sun is shining, he can feel it.
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