Thoughtful Iconoclasts: A Response to Madeleine Bunting

I last mentioned Guardian columnist and Templeton Foundation fellow Madeleine Bunting in 2007, in “On Being Uncontroversial“. She’s recently written another column attacking atheism, alleging that the New Atheists are drowning out, in her words, “real debates” about religion and faith.

Personally, I don’t see the basis of her complaint. I think we’ve been provoking some very good debates – about the proper role of religion in society, how much influence it should have, whether and to what extent its claims deserve respect, how to judge between the various religions’ competing truth claims, and so on. This is a welcome change of pace, I would think, from the dreary repetitions of orthodoxy and the polite, embarrassed silence that’s so often prevailed in public conversations about religion. But none of these are the kind of “real debates” Bunting is talking about.

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney.

In one sense, this is true; there are only so many ways to say “there is no evidence for God”. But what Bunting appears to be arguing is that we’ve said all we have to say and should therefore stop talking. Needless to say, that isn’t going to happen. As she is surely aware, religious faith is still causing evils in the world today: oppressing and persecuting women and homosexuals, providing the ideological underpinnings for terroristic violence and theocratic rule, and motivating attacks on toleration, science, and separation of church and state. Under these circumstances, it would be morally wrong for atheists not to speak out, and we intend to continue doing so until our message sinks in and the world turns toward enlightenment.

And if Bunting’s critique is that atheists have run out of interesting things to say, that same critique applies with redoubled force to her own religion. Faiths like Roman Catholicism have spent millennia preaching from one book, endlessly rehashing the same tedious stories. Does this mean Christianity has hit an intellectual dead end? If not, then how much wronger is this claim in regards to atheism, which is not limited to one holy text or tradition but has the whole wide universe from which to draw its stories and moral lessons?

Just this week, AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists.

If I’m not mistaken, that would be the same A.N. Wilson who said that Darwin’s Descent of Man is “an offence to the intelligence” and added that “the jury is out” about whether evolutionary theory is true. Whether he ever was an atheist or not, this shameful and disgraceful ignorance gives us good reason to doubt his credibility in other areas, and to suspect that his statements about his past position are driven by apologetic necessity. Bunting might as well quote Lee Strobel saying he only became an atheist because he wanted to do whatever he chose and live free of morality and accountability.

In the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, “I don’t believe in God – though I wish I did, and I can’t stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?”

Bunting here provides further evidence for the thesis which I advanced in “Respectable Infidels“: that the only atheists considered “respectable” by apologists are those who concede the superiority of religion and wish they were believers. An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

Anyway, what exactly does Bunting think the New Atheists are doing wrong? We get a glimpse at her answer, what she calls the “key mistake”, and it’s truly bizarre:

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What “belief” used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty”: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

…the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

With this passage, Bunting places herself firmly in the rarefied, academic fantasyland inhabited by so many of her fellow theologians. She alleges that it’s crude and simple-minded to say that you have certain knowledge of what God is like, what he commands, and what we should do to fulfill our duty to him. In its place, she promotes an “apophatic” theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

If that’s the tack she wants to take, fine. But the glaringly obvious rejoinder which she steadfastly refuses to mention is that this position is a minority report. There are billions of theists worldwide who do exactly what she decries, bluntly proclaiming their certainty in an anthropomorphic god whose wishes are known to all. They use this belief as a justification to tyrannize others, and they are loud, well-organized, and belligerent. That is the kind of faith that the New Atheists have risen against; that is the kind we oppose so vehemently because of the ongoing danger it presents to the liberty and well-being of humankind. Bunting’s apophatic faith, which has been been so carefully excised of substance, is a tiny minority opinion and always has been.

This piece is a perfect example of the Courtier’s Reply: religious apologists who decry atheists for not attacking the vague and allegedly more sophisticated creeds held by a handful of theologians, refusing to understand that we are responding to religious faith as it is actually held and practiced by the overwhelming majority of religious people today. Yet somehow, it’s always the atheists who get blamed for attacking this crude and over-literal faith – never the believers who actually hold it and put it into practice.

Bunting demonstrates her failure to grasp this with her closing argument:

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored…. By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are “cruder, less tested, less instructive”.

First of all, many atheists have devoted significant effort to explaining where we find meaning, purpose and goodness in a life free of superstition. Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth’s sake: it was called Unweaving the Rainbow. If Bunting doesn’t know this, maybe it’s because she’s so consumed with her own stereotypes of those awful New Atheists that she hasn’t made the effort to find out what we really think. The debate she wants has been happening all along – she just hasn’t been paying attention.

It’s true that any replacement for religion will be “less tested”. But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We’ve made the decision to attack religions precisely because we’ve concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    In its place, she promotes an “apophatic” theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

    Yet, these same people will make definitive claims, like that god is definitely good.

    Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth’s sake

    I like that.

  • http://nutsandreasons.blogspot.com/ quedula

    I really admire the way you have got to grips with Madeleine Buntings article and demolished it so effectively.

  • http://www.kellygorski.com Kelly

    In its place, she promotes an “apophatic” theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

    Not even that He exists? Oh no, for shame. Of course we know he exists, but we can’t trust our senses regarding anything other than the fact that God exists.

    Facts should supersede belief, not the other way around.

    Excellent post.

  • Stacey Melissa

    I guess Bunting hasn’t read Breaking the Spell, either. Dennett spent a significant portion of the book making mincemeat of her argument. Last I checked, Dennett was supposed to be one of the “New Atheists”.

  • Doug
    Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth’s sake…

    I like that.

    Heh, I caught that too.

    Notice how in the article she cites this philosophy guy who started a ‘school of life’ and who laments that we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we throw religion out with God, but isn’t this what the Unitarians do already? The New Atheists aren’t saying that the community aspects of religion are all bad, and certainly UU serves as an example of this (if you treasure that community aspect.)

    Doug

  • Doug

    I might have phrased that a little confusingly. I didn’t mean that Unitarians throw religion out with God, but that they provide the ‘good’ community aspects of religion.

    Doug

  • Alex, FCD

    What “belief” used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty”: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment [...] the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

    Surely ‘believing’ in Jesus in the latter sense is a necessary condition for ‘believing’ in him in the former.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    Alex:
    It’s possible for a person to, say, follow the Way of the Jedi, without actually believing that Obi-Wan ever existed. Likewise, it’s possible for a person to read the gospels, decide that this guy Jesus’ philosophy is a good one, and try to follow it, regardless of whether he actually existed or not.

    I do agree in part with Bunting, in that religion often seems to be more about commitment to a given group than about accepting certain propositions as true or false.

  • Alex, FCD

    @arensb:

    Likewise, it’s possible for a person to read the gospels, decide that this guy Jesus’ philosophy is a good one, and try to follow it, regardless of whether he actually existed or not.

    Certainly. However, accepting a Christian ethical system is a very different proposition form having a personal love, commitment and loyalty to Jesus. One can consistently think that Obi-Wan is a competent ethical thinker, but one can’t consistently pledge loyalty to Obi-Wan knowing full well that he is imaginary without being insane.

  • Greg

    I do find it strange that Ms. Bunting is asking how to preserve meaning in a ‘post-religious’ society when we are nowhere near living in a post-religious society. The simplistic view that all religious people are as ‘over’ the supernatural aspects of religion as enlightened theologians (if one could use such a phrase) is not consistent with reality. I can understand the reluctance to notice it, but it is unhelpful- and writing articles about how scientists and philosophers have nothing reasonable to say, and thus discouraging people from actually finding out for themselves, further widens the gap between reality and individual perceptions.

    Perhaps there was good reason for some maxims found in religious text- for example, the one about judging not, lest ye be judged. Besides, it seems far more productive to get on with solving things than wasting time judging.

    Are there any journalists actually doing a decent job of reporting on issues like this? The overwhelming tide of ‘courtier’s reply’-type articles all strike me as similarly unproductive.

  • trikepilot

    I doubt the effect will be maximized by bus ads due to the typically lower educated ridership of this method of mass transit. Get the ads on the seat backs in planes and you will achieve a higher result.

    That being said I will still contribute to the cause. And I’m always looking forward to the next opportunity to reach a mass audience of prospective freethinkers.

  • random guy

    The fact that she calls her religion “Christian Myths” is very telling of what she really believes. I know a lot of Christians that would be deeply offended if their cherished beliefs were referred to as myths.

    The fact that she willingly self-applies this phrase to her own beliefs shows a fundamental disconnect between her and the average practicing Christian. Its like Ebon said shes a theologian this is all just an intellectual debate to her. She seems to doubt the seriousness and often simple straightforward natures of the majority of theists. To them these stories are not myths, they are the one literal, inerrant, revealed truth of the almighty God. She doesn’t seem to understand that mentality is the one atheists are objecting too, frankly she doesn’t even seem to recognize it exists.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What worries Gray is that we forget at our peril that all systems of thought rely on myth.

    Wha-a-a-a-at? I don’t buy this premise, which means of course that I don’t buy the further arguments based on it.

  • velkyn

    “By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are “cruder, less tested, less instructive”.”

    Just how can anything be cruder than a being that requires a blood sacrifice to “save” people from the problems it started?

    Ms. Bunting is just one more person who wants atheists to stop rocking the boat. Sorry, dear, but I will stand up when told to sit down by the ignorat likes of you. Your holy book describes your God and I find that God horrific. You may wish to create your own deity so that it isn’t so distasteful, but you are doing it out of whole cloth, just one more Christian who is sure that they know what God “really meant” and who doesn’t want to be associated with such atrocities.

  • Leum

    CS Lewis very slyly and in a way that’s more a general feeling than anything concrete implies a similar argument in Mere Christianity. The argument is essentially that God’s existence isn’t an up-down yes-no question. Then, n an amazing feat of equivocation God, who was argued to be more of an idea than a being, is suddenly tossed over the fence and the theologian smiles and says, “See, God’s an idea and a set of principles and philosophies. And I believe in the idea and follow the principles and philosophies. Therefore, God is an existent being.”

    I don’t mind if people consider God to be a useful idea and religion to be important in their lives, and I don’t care much if people believe in God without evidence and say so in the proud tradition of fideism and theistic existentialism. But it annoys the heck out of me when people claim that the ideas of God make God real, or that belief in a religion is identical to a belief in God.

  • http://zeroanaphora.blogspot.com/ Abbie

    I doubt the effect will be maximized by bus ads due to the typically lower educated ridership of this method of mass transit. Get the ads on the seat backs in planes and you will achieve a higher result.

    Excuse me?

    Way to be elitist. First of all, lots of different people use mass transit- like students, for one example.

    Second, why shouldn’t “lower educated” people also be introduced to atheism? Isn’t that a prime demographic to target?

    What is a “higher result”?

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Religious apologetics has never been anything but smoke, mirrors, and equivocation. Also a good deal of misdirection–which is the category into which Bunting’s trope fits.

    She still can’t prove the theology, so now she changes the subject and talks about how atheism is ruining everything. She’s right of course. It will continue to “ruin everything” for the overwhelming majority of believers who wish to avoid thinking.

    And she hates the idea that we just don’t accept that her position espousing the social necessity of Christian myths is self-evident. *Sigh*

    Good debunking.

  • terrence

    In its place, she promotes an “apophatic” theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

    Who was it who said “A nothing will do just as well as a something about which nothing can be said”

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    I also want to point this out:

    Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

    Um… Ms. Bunting, what you have on your hands there is not a religion. It is a philosophy.

    I’ve run into this argument before: that religion isn’t a supernatural hypothesis about the world. It isn’t telling us what the world is — it’s telling us what the world should be. But then how is religion different from any other moral or political philosophy? If religion is just a set of principles, then what does that have to do with God or souls or heaven?

  • bbk

    Shifting goal posts, strawmen, and concern trolls. Typical. I say we keep doing whatever it is that we’ve been doing so that the next ARIS survey once again shows double the number of non-believers from before. It must not be that boring if our message of skepticism and reason is spreading faster than their fables and lies.

  • Leum

    Greta, why do you always articulate things ten times better than me? That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say lately. Religion is very often a philosophy of life, not a set of supernatural beliefs, and equivocating between the two is dishonest. Even worse, it’s annoying.

  • Pingback: Daylight Atheism > On Being Judgmental

  • AnswerToOldQuestion

    Re: terrence –

    Who was it who said “A nothing will do just as well as a something about which nothing can be said”

    Answer: Wittgenstein

    I realize the comment was from two years ago, though now if someone else is looking and finds this post, they’ll have the answer.


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