There are a lot of layers to this onion, but I will attempt to peel slowly. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens proved yet again that he is incapable of judging a major literary figure without first consulting George Orwell. In Hitchens’ assessment of Graham Greene, he quoted Orwell as saying of the central character of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter,
[He] is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women.
Over at the American Scene blog, Atlantic hand and new author Ross Douthat summarized Orwell (“If he really felt that adultery is a mortal sin, he would stop committing it”) and found the famous novelist and critic’s judgment to be “astonishingly obtuse.”
Douthat explained that such a judgment could only be rendered by “the most bloodless and Puritanical of Christians — or by a devout atheist like Orwell.” He further explained that this obtuseness was a direct result of Orwell’s unbelief: “[U]nderstanding the tormented Christian, the questing agnostic, the atheist who takes a gamble on God and the Catholic who commits suicide — the stock-in-trade of Greene’s great novels, in other words — requires an imaginative leap into religious experience that an atheistic critic is often ill-equipped to make.”
The story line is, I think, fairly clear so far, but then blogger (friend, colleague, etc.) Will Wilkinson decided to hold forth on the subject, and the result was a whole lot of ugly. Wilkinson, quoting the writing of economist Georges Rey and relying on the approach of Gary Becker, introduced the idea of “meta-atheism” into the mix.
Proponents of meta-atheism argue that “many people who say they believe in God don’t really.” In Wilkinson’s explanation these people are not lying, they’re just delusional. On what grounds does he make this claim?
Well. According to most economists, behaviors signal beliefs. I can say that I do not believe in the bus that’s barreling toward me, but if I jump out of the way, I have just proven that I believe in the bus. Likewise, I may say that I want the poor to be cared for, but if I (a) vote against all ballot measures to assist the needy, and (b) refuse to give to charities that help the downtrodden (or to the downtrodden themselves), then people are not being unreasonable when they question my sincerity.
In the case of Graham Greene’s conflicted protagonists, Wilkinson asks,
[I]f I truly believe the hype about my celestial reward, or my infernal punishment, how can I fail so utterly to align my actions with my incentives[?] Ross’s point makes it sound like it is obtuse to question the coherence of a character who truly and honestly loves life, but flings himself from a rooftop anyway.
Wilkinson submits that “meta-atheism is the key to understanding the ‘nuance, backsliding, and self-doubt’ that Ross sets out as central to the religious experience.” See, most religious believers judge that the “social and psychological benefits of appearing to be a believer” eclipse the costs, and the best way to “appear a believer, but to avoid the behavioral costs of actual belief, is to earnestly but falsely believe that one believes.”
There’s more. Wilkinson writes that believers’ “‘faith’ is shaken when we find we cannot stop cheating on our wife, or whatever our transgression may be, because, on some level, we know that if we really believed what we believe we believed, cheating on our wife would be psychologically impossible . . .”
And then this:
[T]he general value of our self-deception is so high that we cast about looking to preserve it. If our religion is a good one, well-adapted to survive in the forbidding habitat of a human psyche, it will tell us that we are fundamentally and irremediably broken, flawed, and unsuited to virtue. And THAT explains why we can be so abjectly and arbitrarily irrational. So grateful are we for the explanation of the possibility of our misbehavior, and thus the possibility of retaining the deep benefits of religious conviction and a religious form of life, we redouble our faith in our faith, and our religion tightens [its] embrace on us we tighten our embrace on it.
There are a lot of things that one wants to say to this (“What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”) that would take us down unproductive trails. I will, therefore, restrain my analysis to a few observations:
1. If the meta-atheist hypothesis is true, then everyone from St. Paul (“What I want to do, I don’t do; what I do I don’t want to do”) to St. Augustine (“Lord, make me a Christian, but not yet”) to, well, your humble scribe (“Dear God, I’m wrong, you’re right, I’m going to bed”) should be scrubbed out of the Book of Life. Or maybe Wilkinson and company would graciously allow that those who were martyred for the faith had revealed a preference.
2. The examples that Wilkinson gives stretch the bounds of credibility, and show the limits of economic theorizing in religious matters. He quotes Georges Rey as saying that “People’s reactions and behavior (e.g., grief, mourning) do not seem seriously affected by their supposed ‘belief’ in a Hereafter.”
Rey asks us to “Imagine a young ‘believing’ couple. He is dying from a painful disease. Would she really rejoice at the prospect of his going to heaven, and of joining him herself when she dies, as though he’d just gone off for a great — eternal! — cure in a luxurious resort in Miami?” If not, then she clearly does not believe in an afterlife.
To borrow from Douthat, this is astonishingly obtuse. To tweak Orwell, there are some things so stupid that only an economist could believe them. That the wife could feel sorrow because of the pain that her husband is experiencing, or the separation that she sees coming far sooner than she could have anticipated, or the financial burdens that she is going to have to shoulder, is simply not a part of the Rey’s equation.
And what of gradations of grief? I have been to funerals for people known to be church-going Bible-reading believers and I have been to funerals for, uh, others. Both occasions are sad — they mark loss and separation, so why shouldn’t they be? — but the funerals for the believers tend to be less somber. People cry some but they also laugh and remember good things about so-and-so’s life, and derive some comfort from the minister’s hint or assurance that he is in a better place.
As to Wilkinson’s speculation that theists should play in traffic more often because, after all, they go to heaven, I think the less said the better.
3. Finally, the argument about meta-atheism cuts both ways. That is, I am sure there are some people who claim to believe in X but in fact do not believe in X. My chief disagreement with Wilkinson is on whether this is a function of delusion or dishonesty (check).
But I wonder about some atheists. That is, when more secular acquaintances, or famous pundits, rail against the idea of religion, the existence of God, or how horribly unfair it all is, it comes across as protesting too loudly and too much. I mean, some of the atheists I know are much more obsessed with religion than I am, to the point of trying to pick a fight with me over something they claim not to believe in. No revealed preference there, I’m sure.