Recently I’ve found myself reflecting quite a bit on religion and critiques of religion such as you find in folks such as Dawkin, Hitchen, Dennett, and so on. I’m hesitant to write this post because religion discussions so often get really ugly in the blogosphere. At the outset, I’d like to say that this post is, in no ways, trying to take up a position with respect to whether God exists, whether religion is good or bad, whether religion should be abolished, and so on. I’ve mellowed on these debates quite a bit as a result of my adventure with OOO. Rather, what interests me here is some of the assumptions that seem to animate the critiques of the new atheists. Here I think the critiques of the new atheists are reflective of a set of assumptions many of us in academia inherit from the representationalist tradition belonging to western thought (incidentally, Alex Reid raises a similar set of concerns today in a very different context). When I refer to the representationalist tradition, I’m referring to that form of theory and philosophical thought that tends to think of social phenomena primarily in terms of representations, beliefs, and meanings. Within this framework, 1) beliefs and representations are the glue that holds people together in societies, and 2) the job of the critic is to evaluate the truth and falsity of beliefs, whether or not they correspond to reality, and the rightness and wrongness of normative principles.
In the context of the new atheists, the question that I’ve increasingly been asking myself is whether it’s true that a religion is primarily or even for the most part about a set of beliefs. Now before my philosophy of religion and theology friends jump all over me in outrage, I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that belief isn’t a component of religion. Clearly it is. Rather, what I find myself wondering is whether it is appropriate, when analyzing religion, to focus on belief as the sine qua non of what religion is. Here, potentially, both the philosopher of religion (of a certain stripe) and the new atheist would be approaching discussions of religion in the wrong way from the outset. In this connection, I’m led to think of Terry Eagleton’s critique of Dawkin’s God Delusion (it was a critique of Dawkins a couple years back, right?). Eagleton castigates Dawkin for knowing nothing of the intricacies of theology and dogma and thereby thoroughly misrepresenting religion and lacking the background to be able to speak intelligently on these issues. Eagleton’s criticism here is, if I’m right, every bit as misguided as Dawkin’s critique. Dawkin largely critiques the beliefs of religion. Eagleton responds that Dawkin doesn’t know what those beliefs are and has therefore targeted a straw man. For my part, I find myself baffled by both of them as, living in the deeply religious and fundamentalist Texas and therefore having a number of deeply religious and fundamentalist students, I’m always struck by the spectacle of one of my highly religious students coming up to me after class (it happens a few times every semester) and talking with animated excitement about the movie they just saw: What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?!. Inevitably I am then treated to an enthusiastic talk about how this film has touched their family so deeply on a spiritual level and how excited they are about it… These remarks coming from students who in papers and in class have waxed poetic about their Christianity. The point? Many believers themselves do not know the theology and dogma of their religion (and here we should not forget the Latin mass practiced before a non-literate lay in Catholicism for centuries).
If belief can play such a flexible role in religion, then this would suggest that critiques of religion such as those we find in Dawkin, Hitchens, and Dennett risk targeting the foam kicked up by the waves… A poetic way of saying that they aren’t getting it at all. So while I concede that belief is a component of religion, I am not at all convinced that we are talking about the right sort of thing when we talk about religion in terms of belief and evaluate the truth claims of religious belief.
But if not belief, then what? Well for starters, its worth noting that religion is never just a set of claims about being (whether or not God exists, whether we have souls, whether there’s heaven and hell, whether there are demons, miracles, etc). No. Religion is also a set of practices. People kneel, they stand, they sing, they fast, they meditate, they observe holy days, etc. These activities are not negligible or secondary aspects of religious practice, yet oddly they often seem to disappear in discussions of religion that focus on belief as if we can ignore these things altogether, and focus on belief alone. Taking a page from Bourdieu, Foucault, and Lacan, these practices are all “technologies of the self” that form the self in a variety of ways. These practices, these technologies of the self, are generative of certain forms of affectivity (as understood by folks like Massumi) and jouissance that deeply influence our cognitive experience of the world, other people, and ourselves and which play a key role in attachment. When I watch a documentary such as Bill Maher’s Religulous, I am struck, in particular, by the scene involving the Pentecostals, where we see well dressed and ordinary looking people of all races and backgrounds frenetically dancing, speaking in tongues, singing, holding hands, holding each other, and so on. What forms of affectivity are taking place in these activities? What forms of jouissance arise from them? What altered states or forms of consciousness here transpire? These are not negligible questions. If your aim is to break attachments to religion, and your theory is that attachment to religion is the result of believing that it’s claims about being are true, you’re going to miss this whole field of attachment and the way in which it creates a hold on people. You’ll be busy pointing out contradictions, false claims, claims lacking in credibility and historical support, while these people are busy activating affects and jouissance. Your strategy will lead you to miss the target from the outset.
In addition to this, religions are generally pervaded by all sorts of objects. There are organs, temples, silver chalices, robes, incense, funny hats, institutions, groups, pews, and so on. Having been brought up in the Catholic-Episcopal tradition myself, what effect does those hard pews, those somber images and stained glass, that frightening visage of Jesus dying on the cross (often very graphically portrayed), that wine, that bread, that putrid incense, and so on have on the formation of a body, a subjectivity, forms of jouissance, and forms of affectivity? Is there a difference in subjectivity and religiosity between a Catholic church service punctuated by chants (I will never be able to erase the images and sounds of the older women in my church that would chant the Lords Prayer prior to service) and somber organ music of the Bach variety, and an evangelical church service filled with guitar and banjo music, light shows, and occasionally even smoke? I don’t have the answers to these questions. I just don’t see them being discussed (and that might just be my lack of familiarity with literature in sociology of religion and elsewhere). The question would be, however, how these objects might channel persons in particular ways.
But above all, in the focus on religion as a set of beliefs or propositions, I think the new atheists fundamentally miss the social dimension of religion. What is forgotten is that religion is not simply a set of claims about the world, but it is also a set of relationships among people. When a believer entertains whether or not to sacrifice a belief, they are not merely raising the question of whether they should shift from treating one set of beliefs as true to treating them as false– for example, switching from belief in young earth creationism to evolutionary theory –no, they are entertaining questions about their place in a network of social relations involving family, friends, and all sorts of other people. In the suburbs of Dallas, for example, people tend to live very alienated and isolated lives. Back yards are fenced in. Garages are on the back of houses entailing that when you’re fiddling about in your garage you no longer easily encounter your neighbors. People seldom tend to walk out on the sidewalks or even spend much time outside. I get the sense that churches function as a sort of supplement, forming a community that overcomes the problem of communities not forming organically in the cities. It is not unusual for my students to tell me that they and their families spend four to five nights a week at their church. In these circumstances, a shift in belief does not merely entail the revision of a belief system, but also carries the very real possibility of exile (and I mean that in the strong sense), from one’s family, friends, and support network. Heightened awareness of this could lead to both a better understanding of why religious discussions are so often pervaded by such heated affect and why argument has such poor traction in persuading others to abandon particular beliefs. Such awareness of this dimension of religious practice would also lead to a very different set of strategic concerns. Rather than focusing on belief and its truth-value, it might raise questions of how alternative communities, alternative networks, might be formed to soften the blow of exile. When Dawkin, for example, focuses on the truth of belief and all of its negative consequences, he speaks from a well established social position filled with a network of supporters in the form of colleagues, friends, and so on. He doesn’t notice that he’s imploring others not simply to abandon their beliefs, but to abandon their networks… And for what? To live in isolation, loathed by those they love? If this network question can’t be answered and solved, there’s very little that such critiques have to offer.