Something of spirit pervades the writings of the neo-atheists, whose attempts to enforce a Christian doctrinal purity I have been loosely chronicling here over the last few months. Both Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have had strong things to say about who may really call themselves a true Christian, and now Daniel Dennett, as part of his effort to demonstrate the evils of "belief in belief," has chimed in with the results of a pilot study profiling five "non-believing" clerics currently preaching in Protestant churches.
In his report on this study, posted from his pulpit at the Washington Post's "On Faith" panel, Dennett allows from the outset that such a project is hampered by the difficulty of what, exactly, a "believer" is supposed to believe. He describes a continuum, one far pole of which would feature a god few people have believed in (In the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least) since the days of Jacob: a fully anthropomorphic God "existing in time and space with eyes and hands..." On the other pole, pure atheism, lacking even an abstract "Ground of Being." Moving along this continuum, from left to right, where can we properly say we have left "belief in god" behind? Two of Dennett's study subjects, both evangelical, are able to draw such lines in the sand (helped no doubt by the implicit hermeneutic of their own fundamentalism), and self-identify (privately, confidentially) as atheists. They each consider themselves hypocrites, and are looking for a way to leave the church. Assuming they are able to do so, these two would not seem very tightly bound by the "trap" Dennett goes on to describe. Their story would seem to be the more straightforward one of people who change their mind about the world, and make changes accordingly.
The bulk of the moral quandary, then, is assumed by the other three subjects (each Mainline Protestant), who consider themselves believers by their own lights, but are concerned that these lights illuminate a much more symbolic realm that that embraced by many of their parishioners. They would like to "come out" and explicate their more subtle understanding of God and scripture, but fear they cannot for the effect it would have on their ability to preach. Some are concerned they would lose their jobs outright, others that focusing on what is signified by doctrinal terms would just get in the way. Dennett quotes one pastor named "Wes":
Well, because on the pulpit, on a Sunday morning, you get people in all different stages. And if I laid that out there, then again, people would not hear the point of the sermon.Dennett means for all of this to support his idea that there is a conspiracy of lies enshrined by our culture's tacit respect for faith that he calls "belief in belief." Because we are not allowed to examine certain cultural values marked off as "sacred," we end up absurdly perpetuating them with institutions which long ago abandoned any claim to real conviction.
It's a compellingly chilling story, one that might lend itself to dystopic science fiction. But is it true? Does Dennett's preliminary data support it? And to the extent it is true, is it uniquely true of religious values, or is this a dilemma that involves anything a society might value, including freedom, justice, progress, self-sacrifice, or even rationality itself?
In his On Faith column, Dennett writes that his working hypothesis, which emerged out of writing Breaking The Spell, was how often ordained clergy "didn't believe a word of the doctrines of the faith to which they were devoting their lives1." Even of his own small and self-selected sample of "non-believers" this is too strong a statement. At least three-fifths of his subjects believe in Christian doctrine in a meaningful, allegorical way. They don't think they are telling lies in their pulpits; they think they are offering vehicles for truth expressed non-literally (which would seem to be legitimate according to the continuum earlier proscribed). Of the two atheists he describes, one has taken the role of "worship leader," avoiding sermons. The other admits to play-acting, and that he doesn't believe "in what I'm singing in some of these songs." But while Dennett has shown what anyone might have guessed (especially anyone who has read Victorian literature), that some percentage of clerics have lost their faith, or part of it, he falls short of convincingly arguing that this rises to the proportion he originally speculated on.
To the extent that closet atheist clerics do exist, though, as they clearly do, can we attribute the etiology of this phenomenon, as Dennett would, to the success of religion in keeping a firewall against rational inquiry? I think we have to ask if there are any parallels pointing to a more broad phenomenon.
Let's imagine a secondary school teacher in mid to late career, once full of zeal for opening the doors of possibility for classroom after classroom of eager students, now jaded into thinking that it's of no consequence whether or not children grow up learning history, math, economics, geography, and biology. The world keeps getting worse; today's children invariably end up as tomorrow's suck-ups and sell-outs. Our cultural experiment in betterment through public education has been a failure. But perhaps it's not all bad, in that it keeps the kids off the streets and out of the sweatshop. Best to go along with the charade. And besides, after 20 or 30 years, what else is a trained teacher, with no savings and only a meagre pension, to do?
Now imagine another pedagogue, this time a college professor of literature. Throughout grad school this professor sustained herself by fantasizing about future seminars and workshops where she would introduce students to the practice of literary analysis, and, indirectly to moral philosophy and the examination of their own souls. Instead she has found, even after securing tenure at one of the nation's most renowned colleges of arts and science, that the vast majority of her students want to be lectured to. They want her to tell them what the important themes of the great books are, and are inordinately concerned with what's "on the test." Attempts to exercise greater control over curriculum and grading policy have only led to increased friction not just with her students, but also with her fellow faculty members, and with administrators, forcing her to modulate her teaching style. She still tries to engage her seminars in discussion, but resiles to lecture format much more than she would ideally prefer, resigning herself to the thin hope that special students will seek out more engagement during office hours.
Are these two instructors also not held in a type of "trap"? We could construct similar analogies featuring scientists, politicians, industrialists, soldiers, environmentalists, filmmakers, poets, building inspectors--indeed it is hard to imagine a vocation that is not prone to disillusionment, in which one could not one day stop believing, for better or worse, in its foundational values. Religion would not seem to suggest any sort of special case on this account. In a separate On Faith column, Richard Dawkins begs to differ, calling the religious case a "singular predicament," and revealing the ideological impediment that keeps him from treating this matter thoughtfully:
Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs.Farmers losing faith in farming as anything but an instrument of destitution, and yet having to carry on, is such a commonplace in literature and folklore, that I can't imagine how Dawkins can bring it up with a straight face. For modern, factual examples we can look to Michael Pollan, for example, who in The Botany of Desire chronicles one potato farmer who will not eat the produce from his own field for its saturation with pesticides. Another potato grower he profiles uses organic methods, and as a result cannot farm the potato (the Russell Burbank) that the biggest customers--makers of fast food french fries--want to buy. As for doctors, the dwindling number of medical students willing to become general practitioners tells a story we could flesh out in a series of posts each as longwinded as this one.
As someone who cannot imagine losing faith in his principles, Dawkins is perhaps one of the lucky ones. But such certitude serves as an impediment against his having clear insight into this aspect of human nature, in which conviction can fail, and it is not easily known whether this failure is an indication that it's time to move on, or to re-up. Is our marriage doomed, or are we just not trying hard enough? Has our child-rearing philosophy gone awry, or do we need to double down? Is our chosen career wrong for us, or are we always too quick to give up when the going gets rough? Is our argumentative style in business meetings an efficient way of getting results or just a needless source of hostility? Of course empirical facts must play a part in answering these kinds of questions. But facts alone cannot make our important moral decisions for us. The defining feature of human agency is the leap of faith. (Always, notably, subject to later revision. If even the conservative Christians of Dennett's study find themselves capable of rejecting their once-sacred beliefs, perhaps the iron-grip of the faith-meme has been over-sold). Looking taxonomically all known traps, surely there is a greater risk that when we make faith in every circumstance an emblem of evil, we make war with ourselves.
1(That this was more than just a hypothesis, but more like an article of faith, is suggested by a comment from December, 2008, on a Guardian post by Andrew Brown stating affirmatively that "The seminaries and churches are full of atheist clergy who live their own version of this paternalism" [where religion is defended as being good for people, even if false].)