Douglas Murray on Atheism

Jesus and the Holy Ghost on holiday at the seaside.

The heated debate over religion that took off about ten years ago seems to have taken a new and strange turn. Now even sensible commentators are saying things like the following paraphrase:

Of course religion isn’t literally true. Almost no sensible person believes that it is. But maybe truth is like water. Truth needs to be carried in something and maybe religion is the bucket in which some deep truth about the human condition is carried. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris miss this important point.

I have heard many patronising atheists and sophisticated bishops make similar arguments but this is the first time I have heard Douglas Murray, who I consider eminently sensible, make it. To say that religion is carrying a deeper truth within its blatantly untrue tales sounds like nonsense to me. What is the deeper truth being carried in, say, the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden?

If I say that Leicester City won the F.A. Cup last year, is this simply wrong or does this carry some deeper truth that Leicester did somehow win the Cup, despite all evidence pointing towards them having been knocked out by Chelsea in a 6th round replay?

To be fair to Douglas Murray I can sort of imagine what he is getting at. I suspect his ‘deeper truth’ is the human desire for ultimate purpose and transcendence. Many people feel this psychological urge but at present only religions can satisfy it. Religious stories flesh out some important grain of truth in the same way that films ‘based on fact’ flesh out real events and the lives of real people. This often means that 90% of what we see on screen has been dreamt up by the screen writer but that this is necessary if we are to get some sense of the diamond at the heart of the story.

I think Douglas Murray feels that almost any belief, no matter how irrational, is preferable to the nihilistic and purposeless lives lived by some people in today’s godless societies. He feels that most of us need consolation and meaning in our lives and while reflecting on the vast sweep of human history and the scale of the universe might fill some people with awe, others are left cold by such things. These people need ‘something more’ but at the moment only implausible religion fills that niche. Wanting even more meaning in life than there already is is an idea jeered at by the New Atheists.

Unfortunately New Age spirituality is no help either since it has none of the gravitas of church ceremonies which help to convey a sense of ‘the tragic sense of life’. Nor is there any sense of anything being passed down the generations or a shared experience. If you are unmoved by the alleged glories of science and can’t bring yourself to believe the clear fabrications of Bronze Age religions then you are left facing the cold, uncaring, purposeless universe. Murray suggests that until atheists can come up with a good way of satisfying the human need for meaning they should shut up and stop mocking religion.

I have some sympathy with these views and I agree that there is something rotten in the way some godless people live today. Even so, I would like to return to my football analogy. Okay, so Leicester City didn’t really win the F.A. Cup last year but since Leicester fans feel sad about this, where is the harm in them pretending that their team did win it? Until atheists come up with a better way of consoling Leicester fans for their team’s poor performance they should shut up and stop mocking them.

Of course, it is not only Leicester City fans who want to pretend that their team won the F.A. Cup. So do the fans of Plymouth Argyle, Preston North End, Stevenage, Walsall and 762 other teams. In the same way the adherents of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and the thousands of other religions would like to believe that their religions are true. If Leicester fans are right and their team won, then Nottingham Forest fans must therefore be wrong and their team lost. They can’t all have won, just as many different religions can’t all be right. And back in the real world, what about the team that actually did win the F.A. Cup? Don’t they have reason to resent other teams stealing their thunder? If every group of fans claims to have won the cup, doesn’t this detract from the actual winner’s achievement? I think science is the actual winner.

I don’t think most people mind football fans or the religious indulging in a little wishful thinking. We just don’t want these fantasies taught as truth in public places. What Leicester fans or Christians believe in the privacy of their own heads is up to them.

My own view is that if religions aren’t true on the level of the stories they tell then they aren’t true at all. Then all the talk of water and buckets and fleshed out diamonds is just so much guff, regardless of how good they make believers feel. They are false and that’s an end to it.

It seems we need more people like Sam Harris to suggest ways of ridding ourselves of the feeling that life is flat, grey, lonely and ultimately pointless. Unfortunately Sam’s championing of meditation just doesn’t convince me, though I’m willing to admit I might have missed something. I think a more promising approach is Harry Frankfurt’s idea of self-love as described – probably inaccurately – here. If you can love yourself then all talk of finding meaning and transcendence becomes redundant. They are just substitutes for the real thing.


2 thoughts on “Douglas Murray on Atheism”

  1. I was very impressed with Douglas Murray, as an atheist himself, speaking up for the right to search for truth in one’s own way. Scientists and atheists can search for truth in their way, with empirical evidence, and others want to search for truth along spiritual lines. They are both necessary. What I took away from Douglas Murray’s talk in the Cambridge debate is the two groups need each other to debate important issues. There’s something amiss when one group wants to eradicate the other. Truth is not just material, what I can see and touch. It is also trying to understand the un-knowable things in life. Murray was just saying religion is a vessel for folks to do that. I have a brother who is militant anti-theist and I am always amazed at how much time he spends bashing religion. It doesn’t make sense to me and it’s not a very good demonstration of the atheist’s position that they can live in peace and harmony without God.

    1. Hi Blackflower,

      I see your point but disagree that atheism deals only with material things. If by ‘material’ you means rocks etc. then you are clearly wrong because psychology, philosophy and emotions are all part of science and none of these is a rock. If on the other hand ‘material things’ means things we have evidence for believing in – a fluttering heart is evidence that I am in love – then I find this a reasonable position. This doesn’t mean that we will never be surprised by things we don’t yet know. It just means that it’s odd, not merely to keep an open mind about all we don’t know, but to actually believe in certain things there is no evidence for. This is no longer open-mindedness but wishful thinking.

      I really don’t get your comment about atheists not being able to ‘live in peace and harmony with God’. Since atheists don’t believe in God, how do you want them to live in peace and harmony with Him? Or do you mean they can’t live in peace and harmony with those who DO believe in God? Yet this is also not true because atheists appear to get along fine with most religious people, providing they don’t insist on foisting their beliefs on non-believers in the public sphere.

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