James Wood recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker called, “Secularism and Its Discontents” – a review of and response to The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, ed. George Levine. Atheism, secularism, religion, etc; these things are on my mind most days, not only because I study religion, nor simply because I don’t believe in God (let’s note now: this is distinct from saying, “I believe there is no God”), but because of my interest in politics, in the conversations of people I pass by in the street, because of literature I read, movies I watch, etc. I’ll mention a couple of other recent sources below. First, however, I’d like to respond to a few points Wood makes/cites.
Early on Wood, commenting on a “convinced atheist” friend who wakes in the night anxious whether the universe really could just come from an accidental big bang, explains the following: “In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts.” I was not, after this opening, expecting to enjoy this piece. (As it happens, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, and it convinced me to be interested in The Joy of Secularism.) What does it mean to be a “convinced” atheist? It’s funny, Wood will later refer, rather casually, to the so-called New Atheists as miltant atheists. This word contains sufficiently diverse connotations – some sufficiently mild, i.e. not all refer to violence – for my complaint to be limited. Sure, they are confrontational. But is the dogmatism so woefully (for Wood) demonstrated by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, not contained within this little adjective convinced? Convinced of what, exactly: atheism? Convinced that there is no God, yet waking in the night to wonder whether there just might be? I’m just not sure what it would mean to be a convinced atheist – perhaps this is why people would want the term agnostic to be used more frequently, but so too would people prefer I respected all religious traditions and beliefs equally, when some simply are not as respectable as others. Atheism seems to me to describe someone who has not been convinced. Perhaps a convinced atheist is convinced she is not convinced. Now, I know, the word is not always used that way, but even the denial of the existence of God seems to me different than the belief that there is none. (Emphasis, again, on the term ‘belief.’) Agnosticism, as it happens, is a perfectly fine word, and as it also happens I apply neither word to myself, but only because they don’t seem particularly useful titles for me. Nevertheless, atheists are not supposed to ask themselves whether their lives are cosmically irrelevant? Well then, who else is going to ask? Any convinced theists would have no need for such a question. Unconvinced theists, on the other hand – now, they are an interesting bunch… That Wood’s friend seems to, without too much concern, posit irrelevance and accidentalness as the obvious results of the revelation of God’s death would occupy a greater share of this blog post, were it not for the fact that Wood’s subject is a book that hopes to posit secularism as not a loss but a gain. A great start.
Nevertheless, Wood quotes one of the authors from the volume as follows: “Believers, then, make an autonomous choice ‘to abdicate autonomy in order to serve what the autonomous assessment has already recognized as good.’” I’d be curious to see the extent to which this plays out in people’s lives. I.e. I agree that there is a choice – undoubtedly. But is this an autonomous choice? I.e. is it even viewed as a choice by the chooser? Or is it a choice the autonomy of which (i.e. its being a choice) would be debated by the believer? Should we not at least ask?
Yet another author is quoted later on: “De Waal warns against conflating ‘the reasons why a behavior evolved and the reasons why individual actors show it, a distinction as sacred to biologists as the one between church and state in modern society.’ As he says, ‘The evolutionary reasons for altruistic behavior are not necessarily the animals’ reasons.’” Wood’s continuation: “In other words, human morality can be explained without being explained away.” Though it is always fun to argue, I am quite grateful to read this little excerpt. Does it not strike the chord one expects to and longs to hear, like the resolution of a Wagnerian epic, where instead we often hear the dissonance of what Wood here calls “bad reduction”?
Timely enough, Discovery has released this the first episode of “Curiosity” with Stephen Hawking musing on the origins of the universe. He makes a quick but convincing argument rooted in science that there is no need to posit any God to understand the big bang or the fact of the universe seemingly springing from nothing. Firstly, he explains, quantum mechanics allows for spontaneous generation of particles. Secondly, negative energy (empty space, as far as I can tell) actually “balances the books” of the universe: we did not get something out of nothing, we got a fabulously active nothing. Or, to say it better, we got zero out of zero – it’s just that there are very many configurations through which zero can be attained. Is this difficult to imagine and understand? Why, yes. Is it accurate? That’s not for me to say. I would have to do a hell of a lot more math study to have a better grasp. I’ll say it’s elegant, and even though this program started with a rather lame dramatization of Vikings looking at the sun during a violent storm, Hawking struck a terrific tone, and for the most part the producers animated his images well.
PS Watch all four parts of the video!