An Anal MBA Believer Responds to the Atheist Authors – Part 1

 I bought and read Richard Dawkins The God Delusion several years ago, soon after I had been baptized. I read the book as a way of challenging my new-found faith – to make sure that it was not some ‘passing phase’ as one relative suggested. What surprised me so much about this book, and the other atheist works that I have read since then, is that they have actually only strengthened my faith, rather than undermining it. In this post and several following it, I will review some of the most common atheist arguments and my responses to them, in the hopes that it will help others wrestling with these same issues. The authors I am focusing on are ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’ as they are sometimes called: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, plus Victor Stenger whose book The New Atheists does a nice job of reviewing the work of the other four and contributing some ideas of his own.  While other scholars with much more robust scholarly credentials have already published rebuttals to these atheist authors, I hope that my unusual theological background (newly hatched spiritual Jistian) and intellectual orientation (quant-oriented MBA with a focus on market research) will provide a slightly different perspective on these issues.

I should note at the outset that I do not intend to attack every aspect of what these authors have to say. In fact, there are a number of areas where I either agree with them, or think they make thought-provoking points (plus, I have to give Richard Dawkins credit for having an excellent sense of humor). However, to the extent that these authors are trying to prove that God does not exist and that religion should be abolished, I think they have failed.

My goal in this first post is to provide a brief overview of the general structure of the atheist arguments that I have encountered thus far, and then respond to the first of these arguments. The authors just mentioned tend to focus on different areas: some are more interested in the scientific evidence against God’s existence (Dawkins on evolution, Stenger on cosmology), while others are more focused on the evils that religion has caused in the world (Hitchens and Harris). However, viewed as a sum, all of them tend to make the following points:

  1. Define religion in the most narrow, fundamentalist (and frequently ludicrous) sense possible
  2. Logically critique existing theological arguments for God’s existence
  3. Lay out scientifically based arguments against the existence of a creator God
    • Biologically based arguments (evolution)
    • Cosmology based arguments (anthropic principle and multiverse theory)
  4. Attack the evidence from personal experience
    • Give ridiculous examples, showing how unlikely they are
    • Show how any more normal experience is the result of evolutionary patterns
  5. Challenge the relationship between religion and morality
    • Religion’s poor historical track record
    • All of the immoral content in sacred texts
    • Show that the real roots of morality lie in nature and evolution
    •  Show how we can be moral without religion (based on rationality and inherent common sense)
  6. Show how religion is not needed to provide life with meaning (or that any meaning it does provide is a delusion)
  7. Introduce the problem of children not being able to ‘choose’ their religion –that religion is a form of child abuse
  8. Show the need to abolish religion because of all the harm it has caused

So, this covers a lot of material – and for today I would just like to address this first issue: how these authors define religion. 

 All five authors cited above focus on religion as “belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought” (this is Daniel Dennett’s definition but it is very similar to the others). The first time I read such a definition of religion as belief  in the supernatural, I was utterly taken aback. I had never viewed my beliefs as having anything to do with the supernatural (especially since this term inevitably brings to mind that show on the new CW with the two hot guys).

Supernatural guys

As you read the atheist books, it becomes clear that they are focusing on the most conservative, fundamentalist forms of religion: people who take the Bible as the literal infallible word of God, who believe that their faith is the only ‘true way to salvation’, etc.   As Karen Armstrong explains in her recent book The Case for God, this form of religious belief is not true to its origins. As she puts it:“ is essential for critics of religion to see fundamentalism in historical context.  Far from being typical of faith, it is an aberration.” (p. 295). Both in The Case for God, and in The Battle for God, she traces how fundamentalism (of Christian, Jewish and Muslim varieties) is a recent phenomenon, reflecting a post-Enlightenment focus on proving God’s existence scientifically and responding to more recent scientific efforts to prove that God does NOT exist.

Richard Dawkins in fact acknowledges that he is focusing on the more fundamentalist forms of religion.  In the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he responds to what he calls the ‘straw man’ argument:

“’You go after crude, rabble-rousing chancers like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion I believe in’”.

Dawkins responds:

“If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible.  To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

This is an interesting claim. However, there are three problems with Dawkins’ response:

  1. The quantitative evidence actually does not support his claim that ‘the vast majority of believers around the world are fundamentalist’
  2. Qualitative data  further shows the complexity and variety of religious beliefs
  3. To the extent that fundamentalism is growing, it does not logically follow that this means that religion in all its forms should be abolished.  Instead this trend should push us to understand what factors drive people to more extremist vs. more ‘decent’ forms of faith, so we can attempt to encourage ‘decency’ and minimize extremism.

Following is my detailed explanation of these three points.

  1. The quantitative evidence actually does not support his claim that ‘the vast majority of believers around the world are fundamentalist’

First, I must apologize that at this stage I have not analyzed data on worldwide religious beliefs – my initial analysis focuses on the US. However, I should note that in terms of analyzing the developed nations, the US is consistently noted as being among the most religious, if not the most (certainly more so than Europe), so the US is not a bad place to start our investigation (recent works by sociologists Peter Berger and Grace Davie have much to say on this topic).  The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey in 2008 of more than 35,000 Americans – the results of this survey are available on this website. If one just looks at the religious affiliation data, it would seem that Dawkins might be correct: Evangelical Christianity is the largest religious affiliation in the US (with more than 26% of respondents), while Catholicism comes in a close second at just under 24%. These two forms of faith are known for being theologically conservative (albeit in very different ways), and together they make up just over 50% of the respondents.  Only 16% of the population is listed as unaffiliated with any religious faith.

But what is interesting is that if you then cross-reference the actual beliefs of these different groups, there is much greater variation than what might be assumed.  For example, only 16% of Catholics view their religion as the only way to achieve eternal life, while 36% of the unaffiliated are 100% certain that God exists. Not exactly what you’d expect. In fact, doing my own cross-referencing of the religious affiliation and belief data, and focusing on those aspects of belief that are considered to be the most fundamentalist and/or indicative of intolerance, I got the following results:

*U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008, based on the religious affiliation and belief data of 96% of respondents

In other words, it looks like Dawkins is factually incorrect to claim that ‘the vast majority of believers’ are fundamentalist (at least not in the US). I should note as well that the percentage who are absolutely certain that God exists is much higher – 69%. It would seem that belief in God does not automatically lead to intolerance or belief in supernatural interventions in one’s life.

2.      Qualitative data  further shows the complexity and variety of religious beliefs

A further challenge in evaluating the real nature of religious beliefs is that the subject matter is so complex that any quantitative analysis is bound to simplify that which should not be simplified. A perfect example of this is the question on the Pew survey regarding whether or not respondents are certain God exists.  We saw above that supposedly 69% of respondents are absolutely certain (while another significant number are ‘fairly certain’). However, this glosses over a big issue: how are these people defining God?  Are they thinking of an old dude with a white beard getting ready for Judgment Day or an abstract force that somehow mysteriously grounds our being? 

Fortunately we have scholarly research on this issue that shows how varied these conceptions can be: in just one article I recently read it showed that in a qualitative field study conducted with only 20 undergraduate students at Auburn University in Alabama, when asked to respond to the question “what is God like”, the students came up with 85 non-redundant terms  (see Kunkel, Cook et all “God Images: A Concept Map” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion). These terms varied along a variety of conceptual ranges, such as whether God is loving or judgemental, as well as whether God is viewed as a person or an abstract force. As the authors put it in their discussion of the research results “The breadth of participant images of God is consistent with previous findings suggesting that God images are multidimensional and varied.  To the extent that our results are generalizable to other settings, participants may imagine God in diverse and rich ways, as with other psychological constructs in which there is significant diversity” (italics added).  In other words, there is perhaps much more diversity in what people believe than is assumed by the atheist authors. 

3. To the extent that fundamentalism is growing, it does not logically follow that this means that religion in all its forms should be abolished.  Instead this trend should push us to understand what factors drive people to more extremist vs. more ‘decent’ forms of faith, so we can attempt to encourage ‘decency’ and minimize extremism.

While I cited the Pew Religious Landscape survey data to challenge Dawkin’s opinions, in one sense the data does point to a disturbing trend: the size and momentum of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian movements and their theological conservatism.  In particular, the fact that 59% of Evangelicals agreed that the Bible was the “word of God, literally true word for word”, is deeply disturbing, especially given the implications for attitudes towards science, homosexuality, and premarital sex (all of which I heartily support).  While this group does not yet form anywhere near a majority in the US, they are a large and vocal minority who obviously wield significant political clout. However, our response to this phenomenon should not be to reject all forms of religion, but to try to understand this particular manifestation of it – and likewise, what factors lead to more progressive and tolerant versions of religious practice and belief.  I don’t have the answer to these questions yet – although I’m looking forward to reading a lot more in the field of Sociology of Religion, which has been focused on these issues for a while. My personal hypothesis is that there may be a strong relationship between level of education and type of beliefs held, and that over time, if access to quality education can be increased (a big if in this country) then more believers may embrace a more complex and nuanced understanding of the divine.  Indeed, Grace Davie, a highly respected British sociologist of religion, comes to a similar conclusion that it is more likely that religion will evolve, not disappear (see The Sociology of Religion).

Well, I suppose that’s enough food for thought for now. As always, comments, criticisms or comedic interludes welcome.


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2 Responses to An Anal MBA Believer Responds to the Atheist Authors – Part 1

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is a neat trick. If you can’t win based on the actual facts redefine the words and declare a victory anyway. Religion is, by definition, the adherence to a set of beliefs which one takes to be the unalterable and absolute truth. Religion, in all it’s forms, is essentially a doctrine that brooks no arguments and allows no revisions save those it is forced to accept in order to survive. If that is not your doctrine then you don’t have a religion…you have a philosophy. It is true that there are many people, particularly in Europe and the U.S., who have a sort of philosophical faith. Most such people are simply sleepwalking in the direction they were pointed as children. Their faith is unexamined and skin deep. They respond to polls without much reflection, often confusing their religious beliefs with their cultural identities. As a result you have a muddy mess of data that means next to nothing. Ask ten people to explain what they mean when they say they believe in God and you will get ten different answers, even among members of the same church. Dawkins narrowly defined religion in his book, not to sneak one over on you but rather, in order to make clear exactly what he takes issue with. He takes issue with religion, not philosophy. A philosopher can be reasoned with, a man adhering to pure faith cannot. What Dawkins is fighting against is this unreasonableness disguised as something sacred. To limit your analysis to the United States is absurd. If you look at our nation you will find that we are not typical of the rest of the world. We are far richer, better fed, more educated etc. Our religiosity is only alarming compared to other developed nations. It is proof positive that education does not fix the problem. Osam Bin Laden was, by all accounts, very well educated, as were several of the 9/11 terrorists. Finally, I want to point out that religion is not immune to evolution and I don’t doubt that it will continue to thrive no matter how many books are written to refute it. Most people are weak-willed idiots. They need their Gods and always will. The Gods will change for every age in order to accommodate any new realities people have been forced to face. The urge to create a fantasy world in which human existence matters and eternal life is possible will never leave us. It is a side-effect of these overly developed brains of ours which are able to contemplate their own insignificance and even their own mortality. For most humans the truth is just too hard to face. Knowing this, I am loathe to argue with you at all, since I’d hate to actually win and make you that much the poorer for hope. But I can’t stand to see a good education go to waste and the wicked love company as almost as much as the miserable.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hello and thank you for taking the time to read and respond to this post. You raise a few interesting points that I’d like to address.

      First, I find your definition of religion interesting. You say “Religion is, by definition, the adherence to a set of beliefs which one takes to be the unalterable and absolute truth.”I’m curious where you found that definition of religion, because it’s narrower than most of the definitions I’ve seen (and I’ll emphasize the plurality because most respected scholars acknowledge that defining religion is not an easy task). For example, Emile Durkheim defines religion as “a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, – beliefs and practices which unite [into] one single moral community, all those who adhere to them.” While anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion in this way: “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic”

      I think my favorite comment is by William James, who says“Let us not fall immediately into a one-sided view of our subject, but let us rather admit freely at the outset that we may very likely find no one essence, but many characters which may alternately be equally important to religion.”

      Of course then he does come up with a definition – solely for the purposes of his lectures on the Varieties of Religious Experience: “The feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”.

      Why am I overloading you with all of these quotations? Just to point out that the more you read about religion, the more you discover that it is a tremendously complex phenomenon that can’t be easily pigeon-holed into one simple definition. I would argue that your definition falls into the ‘simple’ category.

      As for what Dawkins takes issue with – I think the quote I include in this post makes it pretty clear that, as he calls it, “understated, decent, revisionist religion” is a completely different thing than what he is criticizing. His concern is that this more ‘nuanced’ religion is ‘quantitatively negligible’. It is the claim that it is negligible that I take issue with – at least based on the data I’ve found for the US, which I agree is only one sample. I also think that to your later point- that if you believe religion can evolve, then we can work and hope that it will evolve more and more towards this more nuanced form.

      Next – you note that if you “Ask ten people to explain what they mean when they say they believe in God and you will get ten different answers, even among members of the same church.”

      Well yes, I agree with you on that point, in fact I make pretty much the same point in this blog post. But doesn’t that point contradict your definition of religion? If different members of the same church all have different understandings of what God is, then can you say that religion is “the adherence to a set of beliefs which one takes to be the unalterable and absolute truth”? Clearly, these members of this same church are not all adhering to the same set of beliefs, right?

      To address your next statement: “A philosopher can be reasoned with, a man adhering to pure faith cannot.”

      Given that I am engaging in a reasoned exchange with you, and am a woman of faith – I wonder whether you would be interested in revising your thinking on that point? I think perhaps the problem is who you’ve been trying to have religious discussions with. If it’s with someone who has blindly embraced a fundamentalist faith, then often folks like that can be a bit difficult to engage in logical discussion – although I will continue to try. However, not all religious people are like that. I don’t think I am, for one. And most of the people at my Presbyterian church, or at the Conservative Synagogue in my town, or even some Muslims I’ve met recently – none of them are like that. I’ve had wonderful, thought-provoking discussions with people from a variety of faiths, as well as those with no faith at all. I’ve also met pig-headed illogical people from a variety of faiths and no faith at all.

      On to the next point. You are absolutely right that I should not limit my analysis to the US. I just did that for the near term because I had survey data for the US but was not aware of a good international data set on religion. However, I have read some interesting qualitative studies of global religious trends and interestingly there seems to be a growing trend to see Europe as the exception in terms of religiosity, and to attribute much of that exception to the unique role of state churches in Europe. See The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics edited by Peter Berger et al.

      Finally – the end of your comment is really all about how religion is a crutch, the opium of the masses, etc (another definition of religion, btw, by Karl Marx). I suppose you could be right. I can’t prove for certain that my life isn’t totally meaningless and insignificant. All I can do is examine different possible ways of viewing the world, different approaches to living, and find one that seems to optimize the little time I have to live (I should note, fyi, that I am agnostic about the afterlife – my faith has nothing to do with any hope of what happens to me after death). I should also note that what I’ve found provides meaning NOT just because it offers a particular philosophical worldview, but because it provides a form of spiritual sustenance, and most importantly, inspiration to live in a humane and compassionate way every day of my life. It is through how I live and practice my faith that I find ultimate meaning, not through philosophical musings. I have tested different ways of living and have found this one to be the best. I hope that through a similar process you will find the same.

      Finally – I am so glad you decided to challenge me. That’s the point of this blog. If I was afraid to have my faith challenged, and to continuously learn and grow in my thinking, well then in my view that would not be a true faith. Or at least not a seeing one.

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