By Jeremy Neil
It has long been commonplace for atheists to assert that theistic worldviews are foolish and a flight from our rational responsibilities. But these days, among new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris there has arisen a novel criticism that has been aimed more at the moral and political implications of theistic worldviews, rather than at their intellectual irresponsibility. Such worldviews, and the organized religious forms that the y inspire, are now purported to be forces of wickedness that do damage to human social cooperation by virtue of their untoward moral and educational demands. The list of nefarious deeds that is cited by the new atheists includes the promotion of creationism as an orig ins my th in our schools, an advocacy of warlike foreign policies as ways of advancing God’s kingdom, the imposition of intolerant sexual restrictions upon other citizens, and, occasionally the doing of religiously-inspired violent deeds. Typical is for new atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris to assert that the theists who hold these views are ignorant and zealous, and that their theistically-informed social and moral ideals ought no long er to be tolerated. In this article I will be asserting , against the new atheists, that rather than being sources of political instability or non-cooperation, it is possible for theistic worldviews to offer their adherents a public participation platform that is just as hopeful, stable, and aspirational as the participation platform that is available to the new atheists. The stability, hope, and aspiration that arise out of the two beliefs that there is (1) a good for humans, and (2) that that good is being providentially guided or sustained – beliefs that are more robustly available to theists than they are to non-theists – equip theists to be just as collaborative and idealistic as their non-theistic counterparts, and thus to be just as effective as liberal democratic cooperators. More particularly, my argument will be that it is important in liberal democracies that the citizens belie ve, at least collectively, in the ability of public forms of decision-making to produce a more optimal cooperative future. Such a mindset is more readily available when the citizens believe, as theists usually do, in a providential sustenance of the human good.
At the outset of my reflections, and to illustrate the prevalence of the new atheist view that theism is a wicked worldview, I will briefly highlight some of the rather startling assertions that have been made in recent years by Richard Dawkins. I do not here have the space to explore the ideas of his fellow new atheists Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. But much of my argument against Dawkins is likely to apply to them as well.
Consider Dawkins’s book The God Delusion. In the course of the book Dawkins selects choice passages from some of the world’s major religious texts, and he argues that these passages have driven large numbers of religious persons down through the centuries to do oppressive deeds toward their neighbors. For Dawkins, the moral zeal that he thinks has been typical of religious believers down through history has in fact been a dangerous force because it has led them in high percentages to do deeds of malice, intolerance, and violence. Such deeds are barbaric and out of touch with the enlightenment and humanism of our modern age. By contrast, for Dawkins the tolerant psychology that he thinks is typical of secularists is a more morally upright approach to the world. Secularism does not inspire the doing of dastardly deeds. For Dawkins, whenever secularists find that the y are confronting those incorrigible intellectual disagreements in which their religious counterparts, typically, are endeavoring to win via techniques of oppression, the secularists instead seek to tolerate their neighbors and to persuade their neighbors via education – thus avoiding the path of coercion of religious persons. So secularists are more enlightened than their religious counterparts and are for Dawkins the representatives of the humanistic zeitgeist of our times. Practically speaking , secularists have better skills for navigating their political surrounding s than do their theistic counterparts.
When Dawkins says that religion is politically pernicious, what I understand that he means is that what has caused theists in history to do dastardly deeds is their belief in God – and not their various other beliefs. Consider Thomas de Torquemada , Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s chief inquisitor in 15th century Spain. For Dawkins, it presumably was not Torquemada’s belief in a medieval theory of the soul that caused him to torture religious dissenters in such horrifying ways. Rather, it was Torquemada’s belief that God exists and that God is wrathful toward heretics. Dawkins would certainly agree with his fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens’s historical illustrations of this sort of claim. Among the crimes that Hitchens cites in his book God Is Not Great are the Christian crusades of the early medieval era , the Protestant- Catholic ‘troubles’ in twentieth-century Belfast, the Muslim- Christian civil war of the 1980s in Beirut and greater Lebanon, the 1990s ethnic and religious cleansing s of the Christian Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, the death sentence fat was issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in February 1989 for his purported religious apostasy, and the numerous Muslim-Hindu street conflicts that have occurred in recent decades in Indian cities like Bombay (now Mumbai). I will focus here on Dawkins’s God Delusion, however, and I will call Dawkins’s argument the ‘dastardly theists’ argument. Its gist is the claim, advanced via a selective inspection of historical e vents, that theism promotes pernicious behaviors. Typical is to say that theism is non-cooperative and wicked, and that the dastardly deeds of theists like Torquemada are evidence of this. The argument supposes that the truth of a worldview is determinable via an inspection of its cooperative consequences. Theism must be false if so many of its adherents have done dastardly deeds.
Dawkins’s belief that religion poisons every thing and that it is politically pernicious is in spite of its popularity a troubling assertion, and it is one that I intend to dispute. One response to Dawkins is to say that the capacity in principle of a worldview to promote a cooperative mindset is not a guarantee that its adherents in fact in practice will be cooperative. To be sure, I g rant Dawkins the claim that a belief in God’s existence has been central to the justifications that many dastardly theists have offered for their deeds. I also acknowledge that there are many theists, historically, who have not been any more cooperative than their atheist counterparts. Theism has had a history that is much long er than Dawkins’s atheism. Today it is not difficult for atheists like Dawkins to cherry-pick their way through that history and to find numerous religiously-inspired examples of evil.
Yet my own view, in contrast to Dawkins, is that both theists and atheists alike are prone to the doing of dastardly deeds. Both sides can play this rhetorical game, because both sides can disparage the other via a selective inspection of the behaviors of the other ’s adherents. Consider some of the other e vents in history that Dawkins conveniently neglects. There are atheists too who have committed great evils. The Soviet Gulag , the National Socialist Concentration Camps, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, Mao Zedong ’s Great Leap For ward, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution all were 20th century evils that arose out of atheistic assumptions. If, say, Dawkins’s brand of liberal secularism were to become widespread and to flourish for thousands of years in the way that theism has done then I am confident that it too would produce many similarly dastardly characters and deeds.
The upshot is just that the dastardly deeds of some theists do not demonstrate that their worldviews are, in some inherent sense, wicked belief systems. Numerous theists in history have done evil out of theistic assumptions, and numerous atheists in history have done evil out of atheistic assumptions. Humans do bad thing s, period, regardless of whether the y are theists or atheists. As such, I do not think that the game of rhetorical consequentialism at the end of the day helps the cause of the new atheists and I do not consider it to be interesting to debate any further with Dawkins about whether it is the theism of theists that has caused them sometimes in history to do dastardly deeds.
THE COPERATIVE VIRTUES OF THEISM
More interesting in my view than a historical tit-for-tat is a more theoretical investigation. I mean in particular an inspection of the dispositional implications of theism and non-theism. To this end, I want briefly to consider the cooperative virtues that are facilitated by theism and non-theism. There are of course numerous different theisms and as such in order to conduct an orderly conversation I will limit my topic to just one kind. My argument could be applied to both Islam and Judaism, but here I will focus only on the theism with which I am most familiar : Christianity, a worldview that Dawkins accuses of frequent dastardly deeds. I am interested only in mainstream versions of Christianity, by which I mean versions of Christianity that have had venerable histories and numerous adherents – the Catholic Church, Lutheranism, Russian Orthodoxy, Methodism, the Baptist tradition, and so forth. I g rant that there have been numerous individual outliers in history who have claimed to be Christians but whose deeds have been evil and who have not gained substantial following s. Any worldview, including atheism, will have such outliers.
Do the beliefs of mainstream Christian traditions promote the virtues of political cooperation? I contend that the y do. In fact, the cooperative tools that Christianity offers are superior to the tools that are usually other wise available. In making this claim I will be advancing a principle-based argument – not a historical or practice- based one – and I will be analyzing particular Christian beliefs and then asking what the corresponding traits are that are promoted by these beliefs. I will not be analyzing all of the different traits that Christianity promotes. My point will simply be, against Dawkins, that some dispositional traits are cooperative and that the y follow naturally from Christian beliefs.
A capacity for hope and a desire for stability are the particular traits that I have in mind, and that I think that are robustly promoted by Christianity. For starters, Christianity teaches a strong view of divine providence. God exists, God is sovereign, and God guides human affairs in providential ways. In fact, God’s interest in human affairs is deeply benevolent : “And we know that in all thing s God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV ). God allows humans a sphere of decision-making autonomy, but he also at the same time orchestrates our circumstances in constructive ways. The question, of course, is what exactly is the practical meaning of this providential orchestration?
Consider the trait of hope. Does Christianity’s robust divine sovereignty commitment equip it in some special way to promote cooperative hope ? I think that it does. In one sense, Christians are hopeful about the afterlife. By virtue of their belief in divine providence, Christians think that the wrong s of the human experience will be righted at the end of time. A great reversal will take place and the impoverished, the forgotten, the servants, the unselfish, and persons who have undergone suffering for the sake of the gospel will all be rewarded.
But in another sense, Christians can be hopeful for this life as well. Christianity teaches that God is providentially involved in human affairs. God guides and equips His people, whether for their personal sanctification, or for prudent decision-making , or in order to facilitate neighborly cooperation. God would not allow their social and political involvement to skid far off the rails, apart from His divine plan, in such a way that His people make catastrophic choices that he did not foresee. So Christians can be hopeful in this life that God offers them a providential backstop, a support system to channel their cooperation efforts toward constructive purposes.
A similar hope arises from Christianity ’s teaching that God offers a non-subjective ideal of justice. For Christians, social justice is not a mere human convention, and it is not changeable via human artifice. Humans did not create social justice via thought experiments like Rawls’s original position. Instead, social justice is an ideal of desert, restitution, and distribution that is independent of human conventions and that is providentially sustained by God. It is independent of human design, it has eternal significance, and it will be fully realized at the end of time. So Christians view their quest for social justice here on earth as being part of God’s larger plan. Christians can more thoroughly hope than the y other wise could that the y can via social cooperation take steps here on earth toward God’s eternal justice. Hope for human cooperation follows naturally from the belief that there is a good of justice for humans and that that good has divine backing . Such a belief facilitates optimism because it facilitates the idea that we can here and now take steps toward eternal justice.
Finally, I take it that it is good for persons to be hopeful in the ways that I am describing – whether in the future, in themselves, in the promise of thing s working out, or in the possibility of better forms of cooperation with their neighbors. Such hopes can inspire them to engage in social re vitalization efforts, to make second attempts at conquering moral evils, to strive for harmony with their neighbors, and to seek more optimal cooperative arrangements. When liberal democratic citizens belie ve that it is possible for a particular understanding of the good to be true – whatever it is – and likewise when the y are facilitating each other ’s pursuit of such an understanding , the y are equipped for more profitable conversations than would other wise be possible. The upshot is just that Christianity offers its adherents robust reasons for cooperation, on the basis of its promise of social justice.
Similar hopes are perhaps less available to those non-theists who have given up on the prospect of finding a good for humans and also on improving our social cooperation efforts in the course of our quest to find such a good. Consider the cooperative outcomes for which it is possible for an atheist like Richard Dawkins to hope. Dawkins does not believe in any providential sustenance of humanity, or any eternal rectification of wrong s. He also does not believe in non- anthropocentric standards of morality. In fact his main hope, at most, is for a sense of enlightenment – for himself, for his philosophical interlocutors, and for his culture. He desires in particular that the bleak realities that he considers to be true about God ( i.e. God’s non- existence), the universe, and the insignificance of humans be spread at large in the culture in a way that is enlightening . His cooperative hope is for a greater sense of enlightenment that will re veal the stark truths of our circumstances.
But since Dawkins’s hopes are not bolstered by any deep or thorough going commitment to divine providence, what hope can he offer for believing in the achievement of better social justice arrangements? Such providence as Dawkins offers is derived, at best, from evolutionary theory. Dawkins takes pains to criticize the cooperative histories of Christianity and Islam, saying they are unenlightened and inhumane, and that the y violate our contemporary moral sensibilities. At the heart of his critique is his tale of evolutionary moral development. For Dawkins, our cooperative convictions are justifiable by virtue of their adaptive value and their contribution to advantageous species selection. Religious morality has failed, not just because it is wrong as such, but also because it is less adaptive in our current climate than secular morality. So the way of treating others that Dawkins favors is an ever-shifting dynamic that depends upon the ‘ Zeitgeist’ of the age. For Dawkins, ‘rig ht’ behavior is a function of a culture’s prevailing convictions and it is traceable to evolutionary processes. Dawkins’s belief that social arrangements are valuable just insofar as the y offer local evolutionary advantages gives him no hopes for ever attaining any qualitatively ‘ better ’ ideal of social justice. He believes that there is no divine guidance or providence behind our decision-making efforts. So his hard-nosed tale of human insignificance is not at the end of the day a story that is likely to promote inspired forms of political cooperation.
CHRISTIANITY, STABILITY, AND CONFLICT
Again, Christianity also promotes a desire for political stability. One way is via its notion of non-negotiable moral parameters. Christians are taught that God has given them normative guidelines to structure their social and political interactions. The purpose of these guidelines is to promote human flourishing : we ought to love each other and not to be deceitful, to be kind to each other and not to cheat each other or take exploitative advantage of each other, to honor each other ’s dig nit y and to be peaceful. For Christians, such moral boundaries are not changeable or easily capable of being discarded– whatever the current Zeitgeist. Since the y are not malleable via human artifice, it is natural for them to facilitate political stability. They are natural barriers to the ever-present dangers of conflict and anarchy.
Stability is almost always a good thing in liberal democracies. In today ’s world there is an extraordinary amount of belief and behavioral pluralism. Day by day we are being drawn closer to each other via globalization. Today there are an enormous number of belief systems, in close and uncomfortable quarters with each other. The natural result of such pluralism is instability – in the society, in our personal belief systems, and in our ability to connect with our neighbors. Not surprisingly, political conflict has now come to be a key concern in Anglo -American philosophy. John R awls exemplifies this concern when he delineates in Political Liberalism a cooperative model which he thinks is endorsable by religious and non-religious persons alike. His intent is to situate liberal democracies upon an inclusive foundation, and not upon a modus vivendi. My contention in this regard is that Christianity, rightly understood, is conducive to the stability that the philosophers are seeking . It teaches respect for authority, and it discourages deeds that would undermine the social order or that would be contrary to neighborly love and kindness.
Is it similarly possible for Dawkins to promote stability? The truth, in this regard, seems to be that Dawkins’s social vision is inherently unstable because its critique of religiously-informed social arrangements is not at the end of the day predicated upon firm cooperative beliefs. The first and most prominent upshot of Dawkins’s evolutionary tale is just that there is no particular morality that is correct or that ought to trump our other cooperative principles. Let me stress this point again : at the end of the day, Dawkins does not believe in stable normative guidelines. When Dawkins asserts that the principles of morality change in accordance with the Zeitgeist, he is suggesting that the morality of the present might in fact become inferior at some point in the future, if and when the times change. For Dawkins, this is precisely what has happened to the morality of the past : the cooperative opinions of past generations are inferior to our own because the Zeitgeist today has moved on. What once was ‘rig ht’ for our ancestors is now no long er rig ht for us ; and what now is rig ht for us will one day no long er be ‘rig ht’ for our descendants. But Dawkins’s belief that the moral ‘rig ht’ is ever-changing is a story that leaves him in a precarious position to defend his own cooperative opinions. Social cooperation becomes unstable and unpredictable if one believes, as Dawkins does, that that which is ‘rig ht’ is changing with the times.
More particularly, since Dawkins believes that social justice is a product of human artifice, he believes also that it is changeable via artifice. And for Dawkins there is no robust hand of divine providence to channel that change process in constructive directions. At most, providence for Dawkins is the invisible hand of evolutionary adaptation. And yet if Dawkins’s secular evolutionary tale is right,what reason is there for us to believe that its selection mechanisms are adapting us for more stable and successful forms of political cooperation? Dawkins, in committing himself to moral views that are more malleable than those of his theistic counterparts, is also committing himself to less certain social foundations.
The upshot, in brief, is just that there are at least two virtues that are valuable today in the liberal democratic public square – hope and a desire for stability – and that are robustly traceable to Christian doctrinal commitments. In principle, at least, Christianity offers promising cooperative tools – even if in practice there have been theists who have inappropriately applied such tools. The basis for moral cooperation that is available to theists is every bit as good as that which is available to a non-theist like Dawkins. In g rounding their cooperation in the promises of a benevolent and providential deity, Christianity is offering its adherents a trust worthy social foundation.
[Editor’s Note: Atheism image from Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk, 1862, found at Wikipedia Commons.]