To Regret Religion Is To Regret Western Civilization?

"If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency" - Theodore Dalrymple

There has been a recent spate of books by atheists Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens condemning religion. Books by the Christian authors Alister McGrath and John C. Lennox have been written in reply as have several excellent reviews notably that by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books.

Theodore Dalrymple, who describes himself as a non-believer, has found the attack on religion to be somewhat blind and makes this case in his article What the New Atheists Don’t See which appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of City Journal, Volume 17, No. 4. Dalrymple wrote in part:

The British parliament’s first avowedly atheist member, Charles Bradlaugh, would stride into public meetings in the 1880s, take out his pocket watch, and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. God bided his time, but got Bradlaugh in the end. Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever. In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves, and to no one else, to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.

The search for the pure guiding light of reason, uncontaminated by human passion or metaphysical principles that go beyond all possible evidence, continues, however; and recently, an epidemic rash of books has declared success, at least if success consists of having slain the inveterate enemy of reason, namely religion. The philosophers Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, biologist Richard Dawkins, and journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens have all written books roundly condemning religion and its works. Evidently, there is a tide in the affairs, if not of men, at least of authors.

The curious thing about these books is that the authors often appear to think that they are saying something new and brave. Yet with the possible exception of Dennett’s, they advance no argument that I, the village atheist, could not have made by the age of 14. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is the least bad-tempered of the new atheist books, but it is deeply condescending to all religious people. For Dennett, to prove the biological origin of belief in God is to show its irrationality, to break its spell. But of course it is a necessary part of the argument that all possible human beliefs, including belief in evolution, must be explicable in precisely the same way; or else why single out religion for this treatment? Either we test ideas according to arguments in their favor, independent of their origins, thus making the argument from evolution irrelevant, or all possible beliefs come under the same suspicion of being only evolutionary adaptations—and thus biologically contingent rather than true or false. We find ourselves facing a version of the paradox of the Cretan liar: all beliefs, including this one, are the products of evolution, and all beliefs that are products of evolution cannot be known to be true.

One striking aspect of Dennett’s book is his failure to avoid the language of purpose, intention, and ontological moral evaluation, despite his fierce opposition to teleological views of existence: the coyote’s “methods of locomotion have been ruthlessly optimized for efficiency.” Or: “The stinginess of Nature can be seen everywhere we look.” Or again: “This is a good example of Mother Nature’s stinginess in the final accounting combined with absurd profligacy in the methods.” No doubt Dennett would reply that he is writing in metaphors for the layman and that he could translate all his statements into a language without either moral evaluation or purpose included in it.

Dennett is not the only new atheist to employ religious language. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes with approval a new set of Ten Commandments for atheists, which he obtained from an atheist website, without considering odd the idea that atheists require commandments at all, let alone precisely ten of them; nor does their metaphysical status seem to worry him. The last of the atheist’s Ten Commandments ends with the following: “Question everything.” Everything? Including the need to question everything, and so on ad infinitum? Not to belabor the point, but if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove. Metaphysics is like nature: though you throw it out with a pitchfork, yet it always returns. What is confounded here is surely the abstract right to question everything with the actual exercise of that right on all possible occasions. Anyone who did exercise his right on all possible occasions would wind up a short-lived fool.

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.” In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization … To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it … of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting (Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602), by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window. Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life…..

I recently had occasion to compare the writings of the neo-atheists with those of Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In my own neo-atheist days, I would have scorned these works as pertaining to a nonexistent entity and containing nothing of value. But looking, say, into the works of Joseph Hall, D.D., I found myself moved: much more moved, it goes without saying, than by any of the books of the new atheists. Hall was bishop of Exeter and then of Norwich; though a moderate Puritan, he took the Royalist side in the English civil war and lost his see, dying in 1656 while Cromwell was still Lord Protector. Except by specialists, Hall remains almost entirely forgotten today. I opened one of the volumes at random, his Contemplations Upon the Principal Passages of the Holy Story. Here was the contemplation on the sickness of Hezekiah:

Hezekiah was freed from the siege of the Assyrians, but he is surprised with a disease. He, that delivered him from the hand of his enemies, smites him with sickness. God doth not let us loose from all afflictions, when he redeems us from one. To think that Hezekiah was either not thankful enough for his deliverance, or too much lifted up with the glory of so miraculous a favour, were an injurious misconstruction of the hand of God, and an uncharitable censure of a holy prince; for, though no flesh and blood can avoid the just desert of bodily punishment, yet God doth not always strike with an intuition of sin: sometimes he regards the benefit of our trial; sometimes, the glory of his mercy in our cure.

Hall surely means us to infer that whatever happens to us, however unpleasant, has a meaning and purpose; and this enables us to bear our sorrows with greater dignity and less suffering. And it is part of the existential reality of human life that we shall always need consolation, no matter what progress we make. This is the language not of rights and entitlements, but of something much deeper—a universal respect for the condition of being human. For Hall, life is instinct with meaning: a meaning capable of controlling man’s pride at his good fortune and consoling him for his ill fortune.

In his 'Occasional Meditations', Hall takes perfectly ordinary scenes—ordinary, of course, for his times—and derives meaning from them. Here is his meditation “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse”:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin! Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Surely Hall is not suggesting (unlike Dennett in his unguarded moments) that the biological purpose of flies is to feed off injured horses, but rather that a sight in nature can be the occasion for us to reflect imaginatively on our morality. He is not raising a biological theory about flies, in contradistinction to the theory of evolution, but thinking morally about human existence. It is true that he would say that everything is part of God’s providence, but, again, this is no more (and no less) a metaphysical belief than the belief in natural selection as an all-explanatory principle.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

What don't atheists see?

Posted October 31, 2007


Avid Reader said...

If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency

Exquisitely stated!

This quote reminded my of the book ‘Sound and Sense – An Introduction to Poetry’ by Laurence Perrine. Perrine discusses the uses of words in poetry and contrasts how one uses words in science. He says:

The person using language to convey information is hampered by their connotations and multiple denotations. For example, the word 'home' by denotation means only a place where one lives, but by connotation it suggests security, love, comfort, family etc. The word 'spring' has about 25 different denotations such as 'a pounce or a leap', 'a season of the year', 'a natural source of water', 'a coiled wire' etc. The poet tries to use as much of a word as he can.

The purest form of language is scientific language - a language with a one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning; that is, every word would have one meaning only, and for every meaning there would be only one word. Since ordinary language does not fulfill these conditions, scientists have invented ones that do. A statement in his language looks something like this:

SO2 + H2O = H2SO3

In such a statement the symbols have been stripped of all connotation and of all denotations but one. In contrast the word ‘sulfurous’ to a poet might have all kinds of connotations such as fire, smoke, brimstone, hell and damnation. But H2SO3 to a scientist means one thing and one thing only: sulfurous acid.

I think this is the point that Dalrymple was making in his excellent article (and I must thank you for directing my attention to it and to the magazine in which it was published). The atheists reduce life to an equation or a formula but the theists see life in all of its denotations and connotations.


Elizbeth Murray said...

DM: Where do you come across these books! I looked that one up at the book store today – too expensive for me – but I thumbed through it for about half an hour.

As an atheist I have some sympathy with what has been said so far. I agree that if we deal only with the physical state of things and decry the metaphysical then we certainly impoverish our lives. I quite like Michael’s approach to this when he speaks of the need for both model (for the physical) and metaphor (for the metaphysical).

Michael: Several times you have pointed out out that we can describe gravity with the model of an equation but to describe love we must use the metaphor of a poem, play, novel or other narrative. While thumbing through ‘Sound and Sense’ I came across Robert Browning’s poem entitled “Meeting At Night”. It is a poem about love in which the word ‘love’ is never mentioned. How richer our lives are when we open our reason to the transcendent. Enjoy it!

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!


Michael N. Hull said...


Thank you for the kind comments about ‘model’ and ‘metaphor’. I loved the poem ‘Meeting At Night’ – I had not come across it before.

Since you have introduced poems into the discussion what do you think of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’? It’s a poem about the choices we have to make in life and though we can exercise free will in deciding which road to take the choice that we make predetermines our future. I think it is a very interesting poem in thinking about life’s combination of free will and determinism.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Frost commented about the poem:

"One stanza of 'The Road Not Taken' was written while I was sitting on a sofa in the middle of England: was found three or four years later, and I couldn't bear not to finish it. I wasn't thinking about myself there, but about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn't go the other. He was hard on himself that way."”

An analysis of the poem that I read said:

Frost wrote this poem about his friend Edward Thomas, with whom he had walked many times in the woods near London. Frost has said that while walking they would come to different paths and after choosing one, Thomas would always fret wondering what they might have missed by not taking the other path. About the poem, Frost asserted, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem - very tricky." And he is, of course, correct. The poem has been and continues to be used as an inspirational poem, one that to the undiscerning eye seems to be encouraging self-reliance, not following where others have led. But a close reading of the poem proves otherwise. It does not moralize about choice, it simply says that choice is inevitable but you never know what your choice will mean until you have lived it.

I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry and thus you will understand why this scientific reference resonated big time with me!


Neil said...

Michael: Have you read the book “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson? It strongly supports your metaphor analysis. The authors make the basic point that all of our conversation is basically structured with the use of metaphors associated with space and time i.e. the stuff that we ‘experience’ physically.

For example take the notion of ‘time’ which we treat as a valuable physical thing like ‘money’ which thus leads us to conceive of time as something that can be spent, wasted, budgeted, invested wisely or poorly, saved, or squandered.

Some examples:

This gadget will save you hours.
How do you spend your time these days?
The flat tire cost me an hour.
I’ve invested a lot of time in her.
You need to budget your time.
He’s living on borrowed time.
You don’t use your time profitably.

Another example is when we describe another’s point of view we sometimes use ‘war’ as the metaphor.

Some examples:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every point of my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I’ve never won an argument against him.
You disagree? OK, shoot!
If you use that strategy he will wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

Fascinating and right up your street!!!


Michael N. Hull said...


Yes I have read the book! It was one of the initial books to stimulate my thought along dividing things into 'model' and 'metaphor'.