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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

James Wood on the New Atheism

This piece is difficult, puzzling, and, I think, largely wrongheaded. But it also seems, in my humble opinion, to have some wisdom in it somewhere - perhaps just because the discussion of literary novels seems quite plausible, but perhaps also because Wood is onto something about religious experience. He's correct, I'm sure, as to just how complex, confused, and confounding the religious lives and beliefs of ordinary people - people who are not fanatics, saints, or dogmatists - can be. That point is worth making, and I think there are some strong paragraphs around the middle of the article, especially when Wood is talking about literature and how it represents the variety and difficulty of our inner lives.

Even early in the piece, Wood has this passage, which contains some sharp insight, at least until the final quoted sentence:
We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions – they stand up and recite creeds on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; they can tell you who will be punished in hell, and how; they believe that Allah is the one God, and so on. Prayer itself is a proposition: it proposes that God exists, and can be communicated with. Rather than simply declaring all religious belief to be non-propositional, which is manifestly untrue, it would be more interesting to examine what might be called the practice of propositional beliefs. We know that people believe all kinds of things, as propositions. But how do they believe them? In this area, the New Atheism has nothing very interesting to say, except to wish away all such beliefs.
And yet, and yet ... alas, yes, Wood does seem a little wrongheaded. As a commenter pointed out in the equivalent thread to this one over at Jean Kazez's place (Jean loved Wood's piece), you can hardly claim that someone like Richard Dawkins is "dead to metaphor", as Wood ends up doing; au contraire (as Jean more or less  acknowledges), Dawkins is very much alive to metaphor. In fact he is a master of metaphor - he has become such a fine and successful writer partly through his skill in employing vivid metaphors to explain conceptually difficult subjects ... and to make them far clearer to a wide audience. This is where his profound appeal lies.

Jean responds, on her thread, that Dawkins is nonetheless not sensitive to what goes on in the heads of actual believers, or many of them, who may be operating day-by-day with  all sorts of doubts and inchoate hunches, with meaningful images that they can't explain in literal propositions, and so on.There's a point here: I suspect it's true that this complexity of belief (with all the doubts, reversals, and so on) is not emphasised in a book like The God Delusion. I can't say I remember this getting much atttention. (Dennett's work, however, may well be another matter.)

But in any event, is it fair to condemn The God Delusion for being what it is - a rather polemical work, albeit an urbane, complex, and often funny one - rather than a literary novel? Isn't there room for such works, especially in a world in which the kinds of religion that are its chief targets still have a great deal of social and even political influence?

Is it really fair for such a work, no matter how urbane, complex, humorous, and varied in its tone - sometimes, to be sure, forthright and provocative, but at other times meditative, gentle and even conciliatory - to be characterised as if it is one-dimensional, emotionally and linguistically flat, and intellectually narrow? It's a pity that Wood is not prepared to read Dawkins with the same charity and the same kind of sensitivity to nuance and language that he gives to the various European and post-colonial novels that he discusses.

There's clearly an important place for novels of character that explore how religious people - or, indeed, non-religious people touched by religion - think and feel. Wood has made me want to go back and re-read Moby Dick, To the Lighthouse, and other works that he mentions or explicates. He makes me want to read some novels that I have yet to broach for the first time, such as the work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (which I don't know at all) and that of J.M. Coetzee (whose oeuvre I've dipped into only slightly, much to my, ahem, disgrace). That's all impressive, and surely it's (part of) the task of a skilled literary critic to make me respond like that.

But Wood's piece would be stronger if he concentrated on the strengths and beauties of the novels he discusses - leaving the New Atheists out of it altogether - or if, alternatively, he were willing to bring the same critical sense of tone, style, and complexity to the work of Dawkins, Dennett, and others, as he does to works of prose fiction. Dawkins' books, to stay with that prominent example, are far more complex in their language, sensibility, and understanding than Wood would have us think, and considerably more justified than Wood accepts when their author does, indeed, make simplifications: these are inevitable in the writing of non-fictional exposition and polemic, and it's not as if they are hidden or unexplained.

There's a job waiting, for whoever wants it, of examining the published work of Dawkins, in particular, as literature - admittedly a somewhat polemical body of literature. That would make an excellent topic for a PhD, or perhaps for a monograph with at least some appeal beyond an academic audience. The job would require a scientifically literate, sympathetic critic - perhaps Wood could carry it out as well as most, but he'd need to do away with some preconceptions. I'm not volunteering for this particular job, but I do wish critics like Wood would treat the New Atheist books with some of the care and sensitivity that they call for and extol ... even as they tend to caricature, over-simplify, and diminish.


Jason Streitfeld said...

For what it's worth, I find it hard to think of Moby Dick as a symbol of either God or the Devil. Wood says it's a symbol of both. Meh. In any case, by all means re-read the book. It's one of my favorites. (Melville himself said that the whale wasn't meant to be a symbol of anything. I think of it as a manifestation of the sublime.)

Mark Jones said...

I'm puzzled how Jean Kazez would know that new atheists like Dawkins don't understand religious belief, in a way that presumably she does? I consider myself a new atheist, and I understand at least one instance of religious belief - my own, when I believed. I grew up surrounded by moderate Anglicans, Baptists and Catholics, so I'm not sure how much exposure and examination of these beliefs qualifies as sufficient to understand (or do I have an identifiable deficiency that prevents me?). And consider Dawkins's discussions with Father George Coyne and Rowan Williams - he seems to be straining to help them escape their self-imposed prison cells, and it's plain he understands their expressed beliefs to a large degree.

It's a truism that we all of us find some of the more nebulous beliefs of others difficult to understand (they might, in fact, be incoherent). But, once again, this canard that new atheists are peculiarly imperceptive appears to be simply untrue. At least, I don't see the evidence for it.

Steve Gardner said...

Marilynne Robinson is the best contemporary novelist of religious experience -- and perhaps the best such novelist there has ever been. Her twin novels 'Gilead' and 'Home' are, you will forgive the expression, miraculous. If you want to understand why someone like Wood might think that there are aspects of religious thought and life which Dawkins' polemic doesn't reach, they are a good place to start.

DEEN said...

"He's correct, I'm sure, as to just how complex, confused, and confounding the religious lives and beliefs of ordinary people - people who are not fanatics, saints, or dogmatists - can be."

I don't think the New Atheists are unaware of the confusion in most people's beliefs, I think they just don't have much patience for it. They'd much rather challenge people to try and cut through the confusion.

Besides, how does Wood suggest that New Atheists engage with these vague and confused beliefs to begin with? He doesn't say. But you can't argue against a position that isn't clear. Wood and others like him seem to think this is a problem for the New Atheists. The New Atheists, on the other hand, seem to think this is a problem for the people with unclear beliefs. What good is basing your world view on a belief that is so confused you can't even come close to articulating it anyway?

Thanny said...

I really rather despise the spurious discovery of symbols everywhere in literature.

Though I haven't (yet) read the piece, I find it puzzling that anyone with two neurons to rub together could accuse the author of The Selfish Gene of being dead to metaphor. Perhaps Wood is dead to irony?

steve oberski said...

@Mark Jones so I'm not sure how much exposure and examination of these beliefs qualifies as sufficient to understand

I think the religious belief thing is like wine tasting, there is a highly technical language used to to describe the experience but it's completely subjective. Not to say it doesn't increase the pleasure associated with drinking wine but it's mostly in the head.

I'm reminded of these wine tasting incidents:

French researcher Frédéric Brochet "submitted a mid-range Bordeaux in two different bottles, one labeled as a cheap table wine, the other bearing a grand cru etiquette" and obtained predictable results. Tasters described the supposed grand cru as "woody, complex, and round" and the supposed cheap wine as "short, light, and faulty."

when Brochet served a white wine he received all the usual descriptions: "fresh, dry, honeyed, lively." Later he served the same wine dyed red and received the usual red terms: "intense, spicy, supple, deep."

Marshall said...

What Jean said: the "dead to metaphor" line is not well written, but what's the point to "endlessly hammering on the worst kinds of fundamentalism". I think it's right to say that religion is more about literature or psychology than about empirical scientific truth claims, and that Dawkins' and others (names on request) don't go there. You certainly can criticize religion-as-literature, but doing so seems to be not a Gnuzy thing.

I fear it's a vague and confused world. At any rate that's my human experience and I must play it as it lays.

Richard Wein said...

DEN wrote: "What good is basing your world view on a belief that is so confused you can't even come close to articulating it anyway?"

If you care more for certain benefits you get from your religious beliefs than for their truth, that might be a good strategy.