Adam Gopnik: Don’t Stop Believing

It is always a pleasure to find kindred minds — and sometimes more of a pleasure to find minds that are sort of kindred than ones which exactly mirror our own way of thinking. So I was pleased to find, via an article in Schwartzreport, Search Magazine.  (This particular link: http://www.searchmagazine.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/2009%20March-April/full-ongodgopnik.html)

Adam Gopnik “On God”: Don’t Stop Believing

A lot of atheists don’t believe in atheism right now. That is, they view with a certain embarrassment the louder arguments that have lately filled the best-seller lists. The feeling comes less from disagreement with those arguments than from the fear of a kind of Gradgrindism of the heart. Just as the dumber anti-scientism writers treat science as mere product rather than as spiritual adventure, the louder atheists often treat spiritual yearning as mere product, too, reducible to nice buildings or fine music.

The aesthetic sense and the religious sense are permanently joined, however. We go to Italy or India in wonder and we cannot wish away the religious basis of the icons and images we see any more than the religious can wish away obvious, humane progress as mere technology.

For all the stormy arguments, I still think, as Darwin did, that a decent pluralism is possible. It is a pluralism rooted neither in mysticism nor in Stephen Jay Gould’s separate “magisteria” but in plain social fact. Whether we ought to find something unbridgeable between science and faith, the first fact is that we haven’t. Darwinism has been the basis of biology for a century and a half; meanwhile not only have fundamentalists remained fundamental, but poets have gone on writing Christian poetry, and mystics have gone on doing mystical work.

It’s a good thing we can’t reconcile all our beliefs with each other because the possibility of alteration is the healthiest part of our ability to believe. Of course, it is possible to imagine a day in which the forces of intolerance could overwhelm the habits of pluralism. But it hasn’t happened, not yet, and the friends of pluralism do their cause no favors by trying to force the day or pretend that it is nearer than it is. We live perfectly happily in a world where there are churches on the street corners and biology textbooks in the study.

For if by religion we mean a faith in a supernatural deity, an invisible man in the sky, who makes absolute rules about human existence, punishes people for breaking them, and then arrives to hand out a newly amended set from time to time in the Middle East—then, no, the truths of Darwinism are not compatible with religion. But few religious poets or thinkers have held that view of God for a very long time.

Ours has been an age of great theological speculation, sublime religious poetry, and profound personal revelation. If by religion we mean belief in a force in the universe that is mysterious and remote, which nonetheless seems to shine inside us with a power that is inexplicable but real to all those who witness it, and gives meaning and serenity to life—then yes, religion is completely compatible with Darwinism, which is a claim about history, not about everything there is.

And if we mean by religion what most people have actually meant by it since the beginning of religion—an encompassing practice of irrational rituals, which can’t be justified but only experienced, and give order to life and continuity, too—then, yes, of course, religion is compatible with Darwinism. The faiths of George Herbert and Dr. Johnson, of Kierkegaard and W.H. Auden, all have nothing to do with obeying the commands of an invisible man in the sky who intervenes and talks, and everything to do with confronting the chaotic reality of the cosmos and finding order within it.

In this sense, the “epiphenomena” of religion—music, stained glass, meditation exercises, and every other religious product—are the real thing. The imaginative life, in which we make symbols and stories, is not secondary, but primary. When we talk of souls and spirits we are not talking nonsense, any more than we are when we talk of love and courage and faith in an ideal cause.

The fact-value distinction that is so much a part of the modern philosophy of science—the rule that our values are not naturally determined but chosen—is not intended to deprecate the role of values; it is intended to diminish the tyranny of facts. It is a way of saying  not that physical truths imply no morality, but that morality is made in the face of mere physical truth.

Religion may be no guarantee of humane conduct; but nor is it a barrier to it. Atheism is no guarantee of humane conduct, either. As Darwin knew, nothing is any guarantee of humane conduct—except an insistence on it.

Adam Gopnik has been a writer for the New Yorker since 1986. He has written numerous books, including Paris To the Moon and his latest, Angels and Ages, a joint biography of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. He has won National Magazine Awards three times, as well as the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. His work has also been anthologized repeatedly in the Best American series. He lives in New York with his wife and their two children.

3 thoughts on “Adam Gopnik: Don’t Stop Believing

  1. What a great article! I like: “the possibility of alteration is the healthiest part of our ability to believe”.

    And what an interesting magazine – thanks for the link! I’ll add it to my favorites.

  2. Well, if you define God as widely as, “.. a force in the universe that is mysterious and remote, which nonetheless seems to shine inside us with a power that is inexplicable but real to all those who witness it, and gives meaning and serenity to life,” you certainly would avoid contradiction with just about anything.As nice as it is to find some-one who has actually written a book to defend faith for a change, this is, with respect, a little shoddy.

    And the pronouncement that “few religious poets or thinkers have held that view of God for a very long time” when referring to what is basic to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is presumptuous and simply wrong.

    Louis Muller

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