“I agree with many of their criticisms of religion,” Melvin Konner writes about the New Atheists— Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens —“. . . but I don’t like their attacks on other people’s faith. I don’t think faith will fade away, nor do I think it should.” Rather than dismiss or ridicule religious faith, Dr. Konner, an anthropologist and medical doctor, wants to understand it as a fact of human existence. In “Believers: Faith in Human Nature,” he contends that religion is “an evolved, biologically grounded, psychologically intimate, socially strong set of inclinations and ideas that are not universal but are so widespread and deeply ingrained that, in my view, faith will never go away.”
The idea that religion is on the verge of disappearing is an old one. French radicals predicted its demise in the 18th century, as did Karl Marx in the 19th, H.G. Wells and other Fabians in the 20th, and the New Atheists in the 21st. The supposition that religious belief is a holdover from the superstitions of yesterday, destined to expire in the near future, has motivated radicals the world over to carry out horrific acts of violence on religious adherents of all kinds, out of the conviction that it didn’t matter anyway since such people would have no part in the inevitably secular future. Today the same idea, or something close to it, licenses American media outlets to treat fervent religious beliefs as symptoms of madness. If Dr. Konner can persuade today’s radicals to understand religion as a fixed component of life on earth, more power to him.
Believers: Faith in Human Nature
By Melvin Konner
Norton, 244 pages, $28.95
He notes that there are usually thought to be three positions on the matter of God’s existence: “I believe that God exists” (theism); “I don’t believe that God exists” (atheism); and “I can’t tell for sure whether God exists” (agnosticism). Dr. Konner proposes a fourth claim, namely: “Huh?” What he means is that he doesn’t understand what’s meant by “God.” Does the term signify the God described by the prophet Ezekiel? Does it signify karma? Or Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction?
The terms in this debate can indeed become sloppy to the point of meaninglessness, as Dr. Konner suggests, but the way to handle that problem is to define them. By “God” most people in the Anglophone world mean something like a transcendent, metaphysical being who brought about the material world we live in. My sense is that Dr. Konner doesn’t want to put himself in the atheist category because atheism assumes a burden of proof that it can’t possibly handle and therefore seems driven more by resentment at religious belief than a commitment to reason; and that he doesn’t want to call himself an agnostic because that would allow the possibility of God’s existence and so make his account of religion as a strictly evolutionary and material phenomenon appear presumptuous.
But he seems pretty convinced that God isn’t there. In ordinary parlance, he’s an atheist—an atheist who rightly thinks that it’s folly to berate and persecute religious believers for their belief, but an atheist all the same. I mention this to point out what “Believers” isn’t. It isn’t an attempt to understand religious belief on its own terms or to find common ground between belief and unbelief. Dr. Konner’s bedrock assumption is that religious views, insofar as they have definable content, are not true. The author, if I may put it only slightly facetiously, is a charitable atheist telling obnoxious atheists to restrain their hostility because it won’t do any good and may do harm in the long term.
That is a reasonable argument, but not an entirely cogent one. Take away Dr. Konner’s irenic language and it’s about the same as: Don’t harass the nitwits—they can’t help it.
Dr. Konner reports an array of studies purporting to find physiological reasons for various forms of religious affection. An Italian study of 68 people who had suffered from brain tumors and had brain tissue removed, for example, found that patients with losses to the parietal lobe experienced an increase in “self-transcendence,” meaning “creative self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and spiritual acceptance.” Another study examined the brain activity of Carmelite nuns undergoing MRIs. First the nuns were told to recall an intense experience of communion with God, then to recall the same sort of experience with another person. When they thought about God, the nuns exhibited heightened brain activity—both the right and left sides, instead of only the left.
Dr. Konner is careful to disavow the conclusion from these and similar studies that religious faith consists only of cognitive responses to stimuli. Which is a relief, since many of the studies he relays sound like social-scientific balderdash, conducted with the aim of finding that religious faith has its origins in cerebral or bodily abnormalities. For Dr. Konner, they support the more modest claim that religious affections are a natural, innate human impulse, not a consequence of undesirable and eradicable social pathologies. In any case I’m fairly certain that most of his atheist contemporaries will instead draw the conclusion that religion is a sign of lunacy and ought to be discouraged when possible.
The chief flaw of “Believers,” to this professed religious believer anyhow, is the promiscuous use to which it puts the word “religion” and its cognates. Religions include not just every variety of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism but also the dance rituals of hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, the use of peyote by Native Americans, the hunting rituals of the Sirionó of eastern Bolivia, the spiritual anxieties of the Eipo of western New Guinea, and much besides. One begins to suspect that “religion,” for Dr. Konner and his fellow anthropologists, can describe any system of beliefs or philosophical commitments outside of ordinary nonbelief.
Indeed, he defines religious faith, borrowing half of a line from the biblical Book of Hebrews, as the “conviction of things unseen.” But of course nonbelief includes many convictions of unseen things, and lots of those lack anything like evidence. Some are deeply stupid. For nearly a century the developed world was rocked by an evidence-free belief in a future state of egalitarian paradise—communism. Modern environmentalism bears the marks of a strange religion, as do many other political manias. Somehow these are always excluded from clinical discussions of religious fantasies, but why should they be? As a number of scholars have persuasively contended over the past half-century, most recently William Cavanaugh in “The Myth of Religious Violence” (2009), the idea of “religion” as a special area of human activity, separable from all other “neutral” areas, is a uniquely modern one.
Dr. Konner treats the New Atheists’ predictions of religion’s demise with too much respect. Mr. Dawkins and company are as wrong about religion’s future as the French revolutionaries were more than two centuries ago. Their arrogant prophecies deserve a simpler response. I suggest: Huh?
—Mr. Swaim is an editorial-page writer at the Journal.
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