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The "undergraduate atheists" have had their day. The spiritually deaf onslaught of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk has presented such an unfair and one-sided picture of religion that not only has it won few converts, but it may even have aided the cause of faith. If such crude tactics are the best the militant atheists can come up with (many open-minded readers must have thought) then perhaps religion is worth a second look after all.

Of much greater interest, and vastly more intellectual sophistication, are two books, one by the Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston, the other by the French best-selling author André Comte-Sponville, formerly of the Sorbonne. Both are inspired by the achievements of modern science, both firmly reject the traditional idea of a transcendent creator and yet both are sympathetic to our long heritage of spirituality, whose riches they would like to preserve if humanly possible.

Upwardly mobile: The 12th-century "Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Climacus" at the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt 

But can it be done? Johnston, in his intriguingly titled Saving God (Princeton University Press, 2009) insists: "The causal mechanisms that lead to life, conscious awareness, and choice can be perfectly natural, that is, in accord with the laws of nature, and they may indeed take the form of random mutation and natural selection." This is something that most theologians would now accept: why should not a divinely created cosmos develop and evolve in accordance with natural laws? But Johnston proceeds to rule out any transcendent creator by nailing his colours to the mast of ontological naturalism — the idea that there are no supernatural entities or forces and that basic science explains all there is: it provides a "causally complete model of reality". 

And now comes the distinctive twist. There is, Johnston argues, "a religious argument...that we should hope that ontological naturalism is true. For ontological naturalism would be a complete defence against...our tendency to servile idolatry and spiritual materialism." Spiritual materialism involves retaining our ordinary selfish desires (for security, comfort, success, etc) and trying to get them satisfied by manipulating supposed supernatural forces. Idolatry is similar, placating the gods to get what we want. Authentic spirituality, by contrast, must address the "large-scale structural defects in human life" — arbitrary suffering, ageing, our and our loved ones' vulnerability to time and chance and, ultimately, death. The religious or redeemed life, Johnston argues, is one where we are reconciled to these large-scale defects. 

Johnston's achievement here is to grasp the crucial difference that authentic religion makes to ethics — to the whole question of how we should live. The ordinary secular virtues (self-confidence, fairness, good judgment, etc) "take life on its own unredeemed terms and make the most of it". By contrast, the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) are "not merely intensifications of ordinary virtue, but conditions of a transformed or redeemed life". Johnston, unlike the "undergraduate atheists" (the aptly pejorative label is his own coinage), is deeply sympathetic to the resonant insights of Scripture — for example, the story of the Fall, which shows how we are by our nature caught in an oscillation between self-will and the "false righteousness" which conforms to the good out of fear or self-interest. 

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Duncan Macpherson
October 8th, 2010
6:10 AM
I get the impression that John Cottingham does not understand the spirit in which Hitchens and others are being "undergraduate". I think they regard theology as a form of mystification, which disguises its emptiness, not least from its practitioners, by such techniques as extreme abstraction, or celebrating paradox, or dignifying human confusions with the title of 'Mystery', or by flight into the apophatic. To try to match subtlety with subtlety would only mean being caught in this web. Instead, the "undergraduates" offer something like Johnson's kicking a stone and saying 'Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley', or Gibbon's ridicule of doctrines of the Incarnation, or the zen teacher's sudden blow with a stick to stop a student taking refuge in words. A worthy and traditional trope. Probably it does not work on those who need it most.

October 7th, 2010
5:10 AM
In this world of reason and rationality the only thing that can beat naturalist's theory must be based on stronger reason,anything short of it will only contribute to the defeat of the challenger.Fighting with weaker army and tactics will only lead to empire's early demise.The best way to survive in that case is to surrender and collaborate.

Robert Landbeck
October 5th, 2010
9:10 PM
"We cannot........pick and choose the rootstock from which our fragile moral feelings have sprung" If fact that is no longer the case! Humanity now has the opportunity to change to 'root' of moral perception upon which all ethical throught is derived within human nature. This is the underlying claim of the first new interpretation of the moral teaching of Christ spreading on the web, promising to demonstrate the efficacy of a new foundation to moral conduct and perception. And this is not theological wishful thinking? More info at

September 28th, 2010
5:09 AM
Yes we do need "saving" from our benighted selves. The recent Avatar film was a necessary Truth Telling parable for our times. At a very basic level it was about the culture of life versus the "culture" of death. Having already "created" a dying planet (just like we have) the obviously godless techno-barbarian invaders were compelled by the inexorable logic of their cultural patterning to engage in yet another imperial conquest (just like we always have). Rather than understand them-selves and thus change their way of life. The Navi heroine said to Jake: "It is impossible to cure you of your insanity". Quite so. Predictably all of the usual right-wing "conservative" suspects, including those that presume to be religious (as defined in this essay) came out very loudly in support of the techno-barbarians and the "culture" of death. The very same dreadfully sane right-wing religionists who presume that the Pope offers some kind of alternative to the Godlessness of the times. And who write essays for Stand Point.

September 24th, 2010
1:09 PM
"with the sense of right and wrong that lies within our hearts" You have to love the cluelessness of atheist types who actually thinking that "the sense of right and wrong that lies within our hearts" actually provides anything like a meaningful ground for objective moral values. For some strange reason, these people who love to boast constantly about the superior rationality, can't seem to comprehend simple logic and it's implications.

September 13th, 2010
1:09 AM

auctor ignotus
September 11th, 2010
8:09 AM
Jonh Cottingham is a prototypical unreliable narrator. The first indications of this come from the fact that he fails to articulate a meaningful moral theory of a naturalist kind in describing the authors he reviews. He does not succeed in presenting a moral theory at all. It could be that this is a failure of the authors reviewed, but if so why didn't Cottingham make that point? This is reinforced by his aside regarding Nietzsche, whom Cottingham substantially misrepresents. Nietzsche has a powerful substantive naturalist moral theory - the strongest naturalist theory to date, still unrefuted, largely unrecognized even by expert Nietzsche scholars. Verdict: Cottingham is completely unpersuasive. The conclusion that a theistic moral theory is true because the naturalist moral theory he examines is inadequate does not follow. In addition, as I pointed out, he is an unreliable narrator: the fact that he does not present a proper moral theory belonging to the authors he reviews indicates that he has not truly understood their naturalist theories.

Ellis Weiner
September 10th, 2010
12:09 AM
Cottingham craves an absolute, unchanging, unquestionable source of morality. He disagrees with the authors under review, who seek to find it in as grandiose a conception of "Nature" as they can get away with. But all he is left with is the sky god. It is the premise of his critique that is flawed. Just as Einstein showed that there is (and can be) no still, stable baseline reference point in the universe, so is it getting easier to grasp that there is no equivalent for morality. This does not mean that anything is permissible. It means everyone has to work a little harder to hammer out what is and isn't, and not just take God's Word for it (in all its self-contradictions and inconsistencies).

k t barrow
September 9th, 2010
10:09 PM
I do wish John Cottingham had read Michael Benedikt's 2007 book God Is the Good We Do: Theology of Theopraxy. It faces all the questions of naturalism that Cottingham raises in a straightforward way, and yet manages an inspiring view of divinity that is not 19th century deism (or Spinozism) dressed in modern clothing. Benedikt's, in fact, is an entirely new theology, beautifully argued.

September 9th, 2010
5:09 PM
"A little humility may be enough to allow us to make the short step from fidelity to faith. We need the humility to accept that we cannot create our own values, or pick and choose the rootstock from which our fragile moral sensibilities have sprung." A little more humility might allow us to make the leap to admitting that we really don't know who/what created the universe, why, or what relationship we have to that. Faith is hardly humble.

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