The Celestial Teapot

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DECEMBER 18, 2006

The Celestial Teapot

Letter to a Christian Nation

By Sam Harris

(Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pp.,



I have not believed in God since I was fifteen, and now, at forty, Isuspect that I am too late to change. But the velocity of thatflight from belief has not been constant: there have beenhesitations, interruptions, acute nostalgias. Like many raised in areligious household, I often find myself caught in a painful, ifcomic, paradox, whereby I am involved in an angry relationship withthe very God whose existence I am supposed to deny. There is thejoke of the atheist out fishing with a believing friend. Theatheist casts his net and draws up a stone on which is carved: "Ido not exist. Signed: God." And the atheist exclaims: "What did Itell you!" Contradictory this kind of atheism might at times be,but those contradictions feed, perhaps constitute, its brand ofmilitancy; it is because God cannot be entirely banished that one isforced to keep on complaining rather than merely finalize one'selegies.

This is the kind of atheism that Dostoevsky was interested in, thekind that stands on the ladder just one rung below belief. For me,though, the gap between those top two rungs was always large, andis now ever wider. I was brought up in a Christian environment thathad retained more than a memory of nineteenthcenturyevangelicalism. It was not fundamentalist, nor was it literalist:my father was a professor of zoology, a rationalist, a very goodscientist. But it was scriptural, with a great burden of meaning andimport placed on the Gospels, and on Christ's revolutionarychallenge to Nicodemus: one must be born anew, of the spirit ratherthan the flesh.

Ordinary language was saturated in religiosity. A happy occurrencewas a "blessing" or was "providential"; an unhappy one might wellhave been the product of "sinful" or "unedifying" behavior, andthis behavior was almost certainly "unscriptural." An untidybedroom was evidence of "poor stewardship." I was encouraged not towish people "good luck," this being rather secular. The word Iheard most often, of course, was "faith," since none of the otherwords could have functioned without it. I was fascinated when fromtime to time my parents would discuss, in hushed tones, anacquaintance who had "lost his faith. " The phrase, so solemnlyunsheathed, seemed to point to unimaginable wildernesses.

I did not lose my faith so much as hand it on, since I never reallypossessed much of one. This, in an admittedly rather circular way,is the first reason that I am not a believing Christian: the rootsof that belief were always relatively frail, and gave way easilyenough when pressure was applied. Unlike others in my family, I hadno moment of great conversion or revelation. In addition, a numberof other powerful disincentives were presenting themselves to me. Ivividly remember the day I sat down with a piece of paper and drewa line down the middle: on one side I would compile my reasons tobelieve and on the other the reasons not to. Perhaps this wasrigged--anyone who does something like this has already lost hisfaith, well before the pretended ratiocination. It would certainlybe hard to imagine anyone led to believe in God by such a method.

On the debit side was: God's failure to answer prayers; theworldwide varieties of religious experiences and traditions, and afeeling that they could not be compatible; and, overwhelmingly, thedifficulty of reconciling God with the reality of evil. Thestandard atheist package, alas. My childhood, which was a happyone, had been marked by my witnessing several deaths from cancer,friends of my parents who were members of their church. Greatefforts were made, in the usual charismatic or evangelical way, tosave these people. Prayers were raised and raised. Hands were laidon ailing heads, oil was poured. But when it was time for thesepeople to die, they died. After years of hearing thousands ofpetitions offered to the Lord, I cannot recall a single answeredprayer.

How would you know, asks the believer, since God's ways areinscrutable to us? But prayer is one of those cases where aninscrutability argument will not work, because one knows what onehas oneself requested, and therefore what has been denied. If youpray for a member of your congregation to get better and she dies,your prayer was not answered. To retort that God's mysterious wayof answering your prayer--"but God needed her by his side inheaven, that's why he let her die"--might involve not reallyanswering your prayer at all is essentially to nullify prayer, tokill it. I knew that at fifteen. Years later I read Samuel Butler'sThe Way of All Flesh, with its extraordinary image of the futilityof prayer: a bee, inside a room, mistaking the floral wallpaper forthe real thing and briefly attempting to extract its illusorypollen.

More devastating still to belief was the apprehension that there wasa grotesque amount of suffering in the world, and that I could notreconcile this with any of the powers or qualities usually ascribedto God. Even Cardinal Newman, in that terrible, beautiful bookApologia Pro Vita Sua, acknowledges this crisis:

I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sightwhich fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply togive the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is sofull; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter ofnecessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existencemyself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, Ishould have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when Ilook into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of itsCreator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of thisabsolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it notfor this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart,I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when Ilooked into the world.

Without the succor of Newman's "voice, speaking so clearly in myconscience and in my heart," I can see only a world without aCreator, and a set of intractable cruxes. They are familiar toanyone who has read any theodicy. The existence of great pain andevil in the world limits God's power or qualifies his goodness. Ifhe allows enormous suffering, then he is not good, and if he cannotstop this suffering, then he is not very powerful.

Orthodox theology admits that it cannot "solve" this dilemma. Still,over the centuries all sorts of arguments, some of them eloquentand some merely glib, have been advanced to attempt such asolution. Ancient commentators and believers were tempted torelieve God of some of his power rather than his goodness, bypositing a rival lesser God who is responsible for the world'swoes--a Satan, or a false God, a demiurge. This is what Newman meansby "polytheism." The Old Testament, despite Yahweh's obsession withmonotheism, dangles this possibility from time to time, mostfamously at the beginning of Job, where God arranges with Satan totest their poor victim. Gnosticism and Manichaeanism are thebest-known versions of this recourse to dualism.

Theology's two most reliable offerings at the bazaar of theodicy arethe Soul-Making Theory and the Free Will Defense. The former arguesthat suffering is some kind of mysterious training, inseparablefrom worldly existence, and finally a good in its own right. Inheaven, anyway, God will "wipe away all tears from their eyes," asthe Book of Revelation has it. Dostoevsky seems to have believedthis (he was obsessed with that phrase), and Simone Weil, in heressay on affliction, seems to argue that pain is a kind ofapprenticeship. When an apprentice hurt himself on the job, shewrites, it used to be a saying among workmen that "it is the tradeentering his body." But it is not clear why there is so muchsuffering in the world (this is sometimes called "dysteleologicalsuffering"); and the cost of accepting this argument seems to bethat God must seem, however lovingly corrective, unbearably cruel.Pierre Bayle, the late seventeenth-century skeptic, likens such aGod to a father who lets his son break his leg so that he couldhave the educative experience of mending it.

The Free Will Defense suggests that for us to act as moral agents wemust have free will, and that as soon as we have free will we willabuse it. A world without such freedom would be unimaginable,robotic; moreover, in order for our relations with our Creator tobe morally meaningful, we must have the freedom freely to grow andcontract in that relationship. We must live in a dappled world, andwe can only really conceive of existence in terms of suchcontrasts-- light and shade, good and evil, obedience anddisobedience. Free will, to such defenders, is the highest good,higher than human happiness. Again, though, the objection cansurely be made that we seem to have so much freedom, more than weneed. Origen argued that Judas's evil made possible the good ofJesus's crucifixion, and from here it is but a step to theproposition that Hitler's evil allowed various righteous gentilesto act righteously, and from here it is but a step to theproposition that Hitler's evil is itself a good thing because itallowed Hitler himself the exercise of free will--an argument madein our day by Richard Swinburne, an Oxford theologian. It is thekind of "move" that gives academics a bad name.

What if we had been so constituted that our freedom to act wickedlyexisted along a narrower spectrum of possibility? Thieves, bullies,horrid husbands, liars, nasty little onanistic boys, corruptpoliticians, stealers of apples and pears and knowledge, defilersof Eden--but no Hitlers, no Stalins, no murderers, nochild-killers? Obviously, we cannot imagine what this limitedfreedom would look like: it does not, in fact, look much like ouridea of freedom. But if God had made such a world, we would neverhave had any experience of our more murderous freedoms, and wewould not lament their lack. Such a world would not be without anypain; death would still have its sting. But suffering would havehad much of its sting pulled. There would not be so much simplymonstrous suffering in the world. Not possible, you say? But asSchopenhauer retorts to Leibniz, even if the world we currentlyinhabit were the best of all possible worlds, God created both theworld "and also the possibility itself, accordingly he should havearranged this with a view to its admitting of a better world."

Actually, the more complete confounder of the Free Will Defense isthe concept of heaven (less important to Judaism than toChristianity and Islam). In heaven, it seems, all tears will bewiped away and we will be free of pain and suffering. We will alsobe free of freedom--necessarily so, because if freedom were toexist in heaven, we would merely replicate our lives on earth andstart doing terrible things to each other again. Heaven, as anintellectual category as much as an "actual place," depends on theidea that the highest form of happiness--to be face to face withour Maker, and so on--is a state without freedom, or with severelycurtailed freedom. But if this is the ideal state, the state thatour Creator longs to have us in, then why was heaven not institutedon earth? Since heaven was not created on earth, we must concludethat our lives here are more or less painful experiments, and thatthe world is a training ground for heaven.

Yet it is a rigged experiment, since the experiment already knowsits own answer. Not just because God, being omniscient, must knowwhat will become of each of us (the Catholic church tied itself upin knots over this issue, and eventually had to repudiate its owndoctrine of "double predestination"), but also because a realexperiment would put the existence of heaven itself in doubt. Arigged experiment simply puts our going to heaven in doubt. Yet ifheaven must exist, if there is no doubt that heaven exists, then weknow that we are being trained here on earth to exercise a freewill that will not be needed in heaven, a free will the exercise ofwhich causes immense pain to many people, but a pain that will bemiraculously eased in heaven. This is nothing less than adefinition of torture. (Though presumably the likes of RichardSwinburne would argue that seventy years of torture versus aninfinity of heavenly bliss is a "reasonable" experiment.) Heaven isnot and never has been the solution to theodicy; heaven is the veryproblem.

As a teenager, of course, I did not have the philosophical geometryset to map out this horror with the proper lucidity. But Iblundered my way to these arguments, and every way I turned Iwalked into a dark wall. I could not continue to describe this Godin the ways my tradition insisted I should, and Jesus's softeningof Yahweh's austere awfulness in some ways only aggravated theproblem. The Old Testament God, at least, shrinks from attributes,and a vast gulf must separate his unspeakability from ourunderstanding. But Jesus, through his incarnation of God, takes onthe very qualities that cannot be attributed to his father:merciful, loving, wise. Above all, he intervenes: he performsmiracles, he raises the dead, he is himself raised, and he promisesintercession--his own, and the Holy Spirit's. Christ is nothing ifnot describable. This is the central joy for Christians. Yet theCreator he incarnates is not describable in terms that would makeany sense of his providential creation and control of the world.Christ, to me, seems orphaned of the very patrilineage thatconstitutes his bold appeal. He incarnates what cannot beincarnated. What use is his sonship if his father is lost? To beblunt: to worship Christ, it seemed to me, was to worship thebastard child (in the strict sense of the word) of an absolutebastard (in the vernacular sense of the word). And never forgetthat Christ came and nothing changed: salvation had to be pushed onagain, infinitely deferred to a Second Coming. "Silence, that onlyVoice of our God," writes Melville in Pierre, and "how can a manget a Voice out of Silence."

So what, though, if God cannot easily be described as omnipotent,loving, and omniscient? Maimonides felt that it was only our humanlimitations that led us into trying to pin attributes onto God. Wecannot comprehend his essence, and merely hurl human constructionsat him. We are like the men, he says, who praise an earthly kingwith lots of gold coin for owning millions of silver coin. It ismore becoming to define God by what he is not, and to reflect insilence rather than to utter our incomprehensions. "Silence ispraise to Thee," Maimonides approvingly says, quoting Psalm 65, andas if replying to Melville centuries before.

Yet for all the magnificence of its reasoning, this Aristoteliancoolness, which Aquinas to some extent shared, leaves me cold.Suspended between Maimonides and Melville--a fine place to besuspended in any other context--we forlornly watch a describableGod vanishing into a horizon of negatives. This God is silent, anddoes not speak to us; and we are silent too, enjoined not to speakto him. He is just the God of the new physics. Above all, though wemight come to respect and certainly fear and obey this God, whywould we ever worship him? If we know him only by his non-ness,then perhaps non-worship, along with non-love and non-recognition,is the appropriate response? Wittgenstein's little phrase, from adifferent context, comes to mind: "a nothing will serve just aswell as a something about which nothing can be said." And what do wedo with our traditions, which insist on telling stories about,insist on describing, this God about which nothing can be said? Ofone thing we can be absolutely certain: if God exists, then he--it,she--really is nothing like the various representations of him--it,her--that our sacred books contain. If God really exists, he isbeyond love, beyond worship, beyond reach. A silence beckons to asilence. But if that is the case, our attachment to our religioustraditions and descriptions, however noble their approximations,traditions over which we have spilled and continue to spill so muchblood, is sentimental tribalism and one of the greatest tragediesin history.


We are in the midst of that tragedy, and America is drowning inGod's attributes. The Lord will increase your salary, teach yourchildren, raise your self-esteem, boost your career, be a lifelongfriend, and take you into his heart if you only take him into yourheart. He is love, and gentleness, and charity, unless he isforbidding homosexuality or stem-cell research or punishing NewYork with September 11 for its high proportion of gays, lesbians,and degenerates. He greatly dislikes evolutionists, largely becausehe created the world six thousand years ago. He certainly dislikesNancy Pelosi--and now, alas, Pastor Ted Haggard. The Bible is hisinerrant word. According to recent polls, 53 percent of Americansare creationists, and 87 percent--or 260 million people--claim to"never doubt the existence of God." An avowed atheist cannot beelected president. And so on. You know the stupefying recital. Manymillions across the world are absolutely sure they know what God islike, and what he likes. Heine's unbelieving joke, reported by theGoncourt brothers, rises up: on his deathbed, while his wife waspraying that God might forgive him, he interrupted her to say,"Have no fear, my darling. He will forgive: that's hisprofession."

The rise of evangelicalism, and the menace of fundamentalism, alongwith developments in physics, and in theories of evolution andcosmogony, has encouraged a certain style of public atheisticcritique. Many of these names are well-known: Richard Dawkins,Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris. The events of September 11 were thedirect spur for Harris to write his best-selling book The End ofFaith, which vibrated with an admirable anger. It has a suggestivethesis, too, which is that America cannot possibly fightfundamentalist Islam while it is itself gripped by Christianfundamentalism. This symmetry of fundamentalisms means that Americawill not stoop to defeat the religious content--and dangerousidiocy--of its foes. I am not sure if this is exactly provable.Britain, for instance, almost 40 percent of whose citizens professnot to believe in God, has not yet mobilized its secularism invictorious ways (though Harris would doubtless point to TonyBlair's strong Christianity). But it is not his job to win theso-called war on terror, and the essential intellectual approachseems right: attack all the troops of irrational religiosity atonce.

The End of Faith starts well and then becomes a bit predictable,because it begins to follow the rules of its rather thin genre.Letter to a Christian Nation, which is an open letter to the manyChristians who wrote to Harris in complaint, is even thinner. Ihave an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheistictexts, but there is a limit to how many times one can stub one'stoe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor. There is a limitto the number of times one can be told that the Bible is a shakytext, and that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nastythings. Ratio vincit omnia, but the page-by-page demonstration ofthis rationalist conquering can become wearisome. This may be noespecial insult to Harris so much as to his family; BertrandRussell's Why I Am Not a Christian made a great initial impact onme when I was a teenager--it was like seeing someone in the nude,for the first time--until I began to get bored with itsself-exposure. Russell complaining that Jesus was not a moralteacher, that he was really rather a bad example because he threwthe money lenders out of the temples and cursed the fig tree,seemed somehow a little undignified. Russell is reliably at hisleast philosophical when he is at his most atheistical.

The genre tends to proceed thus: the atheist must first remove allpossible respect from religious belief. The tone is a little perky,and lively thoughtexperiments bloom. They go a bit like this: if Itold you that President Bush prays every day to his vacuum cleaner,you would judge him insane. But why is there any evidence that theGod he prays to exists? It is fun, knockabout. Harris likes tocompare belief in God with belief in Wotan or Zeus: "Can you provethat Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine ifwe lived in a society where people spent tens of billions ofdollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods ofMount Olympus."

The model is Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot," gleefully quotedby Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. If, says Russell, I toldyou that a celestial teapot was orbiting the sun but that you couldnot see it, nobody would be able to disprove me; "but if I were togo on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it isintolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, Ishould rightly be thought to be talking nonsense." God is like theteapot, we are supposed to infer. Dawkins uses Russell to arguethat we cannot prove God's non-existence, but then we cannot proveanything's non-existence. "What matters," writes Dawkins, "is notwhether God is disprovable (he isn't), but whether his existence isprobable.... Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far lessprobable than other undisprovable things."

I agree with Dawkins's conclusion, and consider God highlyimprobable, but I dislike the way he gets there. It seems to occurneither to him nor to Russell that belief in God is not like beliefin a teapot. The referent--the content of the belief--matters here.God may be just as undisprovable as the teapot, but belief in Godis a good deal more reasonable than belief in the teapot, preciselybecause God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing,and thus entices our approximations. There is a reason, after all,that no one has ever worshiped a teapot: it does not allow enoughroom to pour the fluid of our incomprehension into it.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself seems to agree with this complaint.In a recent conversation in Time with the geneticist FrancisCollins (who is a believing Christian), a conversation in whichboth men spoke eloquently, Dawkins was pushed by Collins to admitthat, in Dawkins's words, "there could be something incrediblygrand and incomprehensible beyond our understanding." That's God,said Collins. Yes, but it could be any of billions of Gods, repliedDawkins: "the chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the Godof Jesus, is vanishingly small." In other words, the God of aparticular scripture and tradition is a parochial and inherentlyimprobable notion. But the idea of some kind of creator, saidDawkins, "does seem to be a worthy idea. Refutable--butnevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect." To whichone should add: by definition, then, this "grand and big" idea isnot analogically disproved by referring to celestial teapots orvacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur.

My inner atheist nevertheless enjoys the "naughtiness" of thisdisrespect, even if a little of it goes a long way. And all thesewriters are correct to argue that religion is unfairly protected bya cordon sanitaire of "respect." In America, all you need to do isintone the word "faith" and your opponent will start backing awayfrom you in terror, like a vampire before a crucifix. In thesebooks the vampire bites back, and Harris has an Orwellianrobustness and a good journalistic way with his one-liners. To thecreationists who believe that the world is six thousand years old,he says: "This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after theSumerians invented glue." The principal concern of AmericanChristians "appears to be that the creator of the universe willtake offense at something people do while naked." Twenty percent ofall recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, he writes: "if Godexists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all."

Having set fire to religion's firewall of respect, the genre moveson to point out that millions of people believe that theirreligious traditions are the right ones, and that they cannot allbe right. Then it is time to dismantle the texts, usually bypointing to historical inconsistencies and moral outrages, such asthe Bible's silence on slavery, or God's instruction that heretics,adulterers, and homosexuals should be stoned. From here it is a merestep to arguing that we do not need divine laws--especially giventheir historically specific nature--in order to be good. Atheistsare not wicked, and several studies suggest that they may even be abit less wicked than religionists. By the way, though Stalin was anatheist, Hitler probably was not. Nazi anti- Semitism was aChristian monster, at bottom, and received plentiful support fromthe churches. Dawkins and Harris say almost exactly the same thinghere. Harris makes the perfectly good point that

Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia arenot examples of what happens to people when they become tooreasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangersof political and racial dogmatism. It is time that Christians ...stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails theblind embrace of atheism as a dogma.... The problem withreligion--as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarianmythology--is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society inhuman history that ever suffered because its people became toodesirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

This may be a little self-serving, in that "reasonable" is herebeing defined by what it excludes: it cannot be reasonable to be aNazi, and therefore Nazism is by definition unreasonable. Butcommunism, of course, put great stock in scientific materialism, inthe reason of historical progress. The argument against dogma isquite just, though, and communism can certainly be seen as a rivalreligion, with messianic tendencies.


This brand of public atheism is very good at the necessarydisrespecting of religion, and it has a properly hygienic function.But how worthy of respect is it itself? The problem is that itsbright certainty about the utter silliness of religion leads veryquickly away from philosophy and argument. There is a dismayinggap, in these books, between the righteous anger of the critique ofthe many absurdities of religious belief and the attempts to accountfor why people have believed this apparent nonsense for so manycenturies. I would rather that these writers refrained fromspeculation altogether than plunge into their flimsyanthropological kit bag. It is peculiar indeed to read Dawkins'seloquent pages on evolution, and on how evolution may in the endsolve the question of who created us, and then to find that veryevolutionary theory being applied in the most hypothetical,rampantly unscientific ways to the question of why we have believedin God for so long.

For Dawkins, it may all be explained by our evolutionary need tofall in love, or perhaps by our childish need to have a big friend.At the same time, we have also evolved a HADD, a "hyperactive agentdetection device": "we hyperactively detect agents where there arenone, and this makes us suspect malice or benignity where, in fact,nature is only indifferent." (Daniel Dennett is also fond of theargument from HADD.) Dawkins's example of this tendency is a momentin Fawlty Towers when John Cleese's car breaks down. Cleese, drunkwith HADD, one supposes, starts thrashing his car to death. Dawkinstruly appears to think that this high-table guffawing will do as anexplanation of why thousands of generations have been drawn tobelieve in God. And mystical experience of the divine does notdetain him, either. We have evolved superb "simulation software inthe brain," which is "especially adept at constructing faces andvoices.... It is well capable of constructing `visions' and`visitations' of the utmost veridical power. To simulate a ghost oran angel or a Virgin Mary would be child's play to software of thissophistication." And he concludes: "That is really all that needs tobe said about personal `experiences' of gods or other religiousphenomena." Evolutionary biologists never seem happier than whenthey are talking about humans as crafty but malfunctioningcomputers, with "toolkits" and "menus" and "software." Thepossibility that this might itself be a mad "vision," an example ofa highly evolved Oxonian computer on the blink, does not occur toDawkins's own simulation software.

The emphasis on evidence, on provability and probability, is aninevitable part of the cleansing rationalism of these books, and isnot always unwelcome. Dawkins is careful to talk about theimprobability of God's existence, not his impossibility, thoughHarris rather too easily lapses into talk about "insufficientevidence": "It is undeniable that people of faith make heroicsacrifices to relieve the suffering of other human beings. But is itnecessary to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order tobehave this way?" Yet he surely knows that we believe all kinds ofthings on insufficient evidence. Or rather, what might besufficient evidence to him could well be insufficient to someoneelse and vice versa. Hume was right, says the French philosopherAlain, "to mock the King of Siam who believed that ice wasimpossible because he had never seen it." Harris might say that hehas sufficient evidence in order to believe in the laws of physicsbecause they have never failed him, but that level ofevidence-satisfaction would seem pretty low to a physicist. On whatevidence, for instance, does he believe that the universe isexpanding?

We have to acknowledge that most religious language cannot be testedfor its provability by a philosophical rationalism that anywaydefines the terms of that provability. Religious language, asWittgenstein never tired of pointing out, is a practice, not anexperiment; its referents are defined by how it is used. There aregrammatical differences between the use of religious language andordinary language. One might finally disagree with Wittgenstein,and certainly some of his more irritating followers have wieldedhis idea of language games as a way of refusing any demand tojustify belief in God. I think that Wittgenstein's notion seems anexcellent way of defending a way of life, an embedded habit ofreligious practice--say, kissing an icon--that already exists; butit is hard to see how any novice, who had never believed, would beled to adopt a religious practice by Wittgenstein's language. Inhis world, one seems always to be born into such practices.Conversely, people do indeed lose their faith because they cease tobelieve in certain propositions (I did); Wittgenstein always seemsto treat as lunatic anyone who would want to stop kissing anicon--for him this would be tantamount to wanting to leave one'sfamily and change one's surname--because he cannot imagine apropositional content to religion.

These are not easy questions, then, but the jauntily unphilosophicalway in which most popular atheistic writing simply ignores theWittgensteinian dilemmas is disappointing, and explains why itsexplanations of the sources of religious belief are so jejune. Isthere not a kind of insult to language in so comprehensivelybanning the incomprehensible? Shouldn't a physicist--a friend ofmine--be able to say that, for her, Coltrane's A Love Supreme "isGod," without atheism busily correcting her lexical lapse into theunprovable? Dawkins says of James Frazer's The Golden Bough, "Readsuch books and marvel at the richness of human gullibility," as ifthat solves that. Sam Harris gets himself into a telling knot inThe End of Faith, when he attempts to float a kind of vaguelyEastern, vaguely New Agey form of meditation. (The dirty secret ofthat book is that Harris turns out to be a Buddhist.) He dislikeshaving to use words like "spirituality" and "mysticism" becausethey have "unfortunate associations." But use them he does,explaining that mystical meditation makes us happy and is good forus, and suggesting that we should do it from time to time. Ofcourse, he thus falls into the very consequentialism that hedislikes in some religious discourse (the kind that says that youshould believe in order not to be sinful). Perhaps realizing this,he explains that his kind of mysticism "is a rational enterprise.Religion is not." He continues:

The mystic has recognized something about the nature ofconsciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptibleto rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what hebelieves, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery ofthe world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or itcan be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religionis nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones forall time. It is the denial--at once full of hope and full offear--of the vastitude of human ignorance.

But this rational mysticism seems a pretty poor substitute for thegrandeurs of religious mysticism, however one judges the latter'sempirical content. Harris is welcome to sit on his floor and getoff on his Buddhism; I'll go and sit in a cathedral.

And what does it mean to say that the mystery of the world can beanalyzed with scientific concepts? Harris knows as well as anyoneelse that it is precisely the ultimate mysteriousness of theuniverse that science has so far failed to explain. The Big Bangtheory has gone far in explaining--no, in proving--how the universefirst began to expand from an infinitesimal compacting of matter, atheory foreshadowed, in fact, in the speculations of some of thevery irrationalists disdained by atheism: ancient and medievalphilosophy and theology boldly discusses the idea that space andtime were created together. But about the very moment before thisfirst expansion, and the conditions that made it possible, there isonly speculation. About this moment, we are all in the dark, andsilence calls to silence.

By James Wood

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