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Religious Believers Have a Lot More in Common With Atheists Than They Realize

Amanda Edwards/GETTY IMAGES

Adam Gopnik's long essay on atheism in The New Yorker, which is alternately insightful and frustrating, has already elicited responses from people as, er, different as Ross Douthat and Jerry Coyne. Douthat accuses Gopnik of simplifying and misunderstanding the ways in which people believe; Coyne, who is mentioned in Gopnik's essay, is more generous but also critical. 

Gopnik's intent is quite clearly to explain how atheism has gained the upper hand over belief in modern liberal society. He attributes this development to a variety of factors. The most interesting one, as Gopnik acutely notes, is that biology has replaced physics as the "science of the moment," and biology is much less accommodating to religious belief.

Gopnik is clearly more sympathetic to atheism than faith, but it's his attempt to be fair to religion that ends up weakening his case. It is true, as Gopnik argues, that religious believers and atheists share more than most people realize. But Gopnik's particular attempt to draw a parallel between religion and atheism fails, and he leaves out the most critical thing that almost everyone, regardless of their beliefs, has in common.

Take this crucial passage of Gopnik's, which tries to explain the ways in which non-believers mimic believers: 

But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

Even if you are uninterested in the religious skirmishes of our current era, you have certainly read a version of this argument before. Essentially, it goes as follows: self-described atheists believe in the value of rituals, and have trouble living lives purely as materialists and rationalists. They, too, search for "meaning."

Gopnik continues with this point by referring to Coyne's atheist website, and claims it is worth noting that Coyne "varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs." He adds: "The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love." 

This comparison is, at best, strained. For starters, to say that my love for my cat is not based on reason is quite different from the belief that God exists. The latter is objectively false, or perhaps very, very unlikely. The former is a matter of feelings. Of course people's feelings are irrational; but not all feelings involve making claims about reality. I can have the feeling that being around my family is uncomfortable. I can also have the feeling that the government is out to get me. Only one of them can be labeled true or false. 

The second odd thing about these passages, and the argument that non-believers are irrational, is that I don't quite see what Gopnik intends for us to make of them, even if we accept their worth. For example, suppose I divide the world up into men who hate women and men who believe in feminism and female equality. And then let's say that I can prove that even the more enlightened men exhibit sexist behaviors. What does this have to do with the merits of sexism? Nothing, of course. Sexism is still wrong. If atheists exhibit all the signs of belief that believers do, as Gopnik argues, this tells us next to nothing about the validity of belief. (It also, as Coyne points out, tends to strengthen the idea that there is something ingrained or genetic about faith, which, again, does not tell us anything about its validity.)

Gopnik's essay might have been richer if he had reversed his argument. What's striking about the modern world is indeed that atheists and believers have a lot in common, but the main thing that they share is a belief in reason and science. To go back to physics, which Gopnik mentions: do you know of any believers who don't believe in the laws of physics? In gravity? In the roundness of the earth? That the sun will rise in the morning? Do you know any believers for whom the majority of their beliefs don't spring from material reality? Probably not.

Even believers, then, live their lives according to science and reason 99% of the time. It's only regarding that other 1% of things--which concerns issues like the creation of the universe, or faith in a supernatural power--that many believers depart from the scientific consensus. I imagine most religious people are as rigid about a belief in gravity as the average atheist, so why is the atheist scolded for rigid scientism when he or she also believes in the areas of science that conflict with religion?

I yearn to read a piece that, rather than scolding atheists for being scientifically minded, actually noted that we are all scientifically minded. And hooray for us.