Umberto Eco is one of those agnostic or atheist writers Christians tend to like, not just for the quality of his thinking on this or that question, but because every now and then he seems to let the cat out of the bag. “Your own guy admits it!” is one of the most satisfying arguments around. Christian apologists offer it a lot. (It’s also one of the easiest to make, and that aspect of its attraction should not be forgotten.)
And it is also, with a few exceptions, though I can’t think of any at the moment, an argument to be avoided, or used with qualifications. I’m thinking mainly of the apologist, who usually does not see that the atheist believes, and with reason, that he has no bag at all, much less a cat he might accidentally release.
In a column written for Christmas five years ago, which I recently came across while looking for something else on Christmas, Eco notes that “Human beings are religious animals,” and explains that “it is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion.” We need, he writes,
to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people. . . . It is the role of religion to provide that justification. Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death.
Then—and this is the cat let out of the bag part—he notes that
You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century. They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms — yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious.
Aha! the apologist thinks at this point, he’s admitting that man can’t live without religion, from which it follows that man can’t live without God, from which it follows that God exists. If he does not go quite that far, he thinks that Eco has undermined the secularist narrative in a way that makes the theist narrative much more believable, or at least much more easily believed.
In any case, the embarrassing fact having been revealed by someone who shouldn’t admit it in public, the camel will follow his nose into the tent, the dominoes will fall, the other shoe will drop.
But the testimony of someone on the other side doesn’t really get the religious believer very far, no matter how eminent the writer who has offered the testimony. There is the simple problem that if the admission were really so damaging, someone like Eco would not admit it. Then there is the greater problem that whatever the cat the other side seems to have let out of it's bag, the admission can always be read in two or more ways and one of them will favor the non-believer. Each side can explain or explain away the most embarrassing facts.
The believer can say, “See, people are religious. Even the great nineteenth century atheists were religious. Eco admits it,” and the non-believer can respond, “They could not completely escape the effects of their upbringing and culture. Their minds and hearts were formed by the assumption that there is something out there.”
Offering evidence from the present, the believer may argue that many scientists are still religious, and point to the religious emotion and authority some who are not give to science, and the non-believer can respond that they could not completely escape the effects of a culture that is still religious, and point to the high percentage of atheists among practicing scientists. (Which may or may not be accurate, but we’ll let it go for now.)
One of them sees the persistence of religion as remarkable in a secular culture, the other sees the growth of atheism as remarkable in a religious culture. The same fact seems to each an argument in their favor.
The arguments can get more sophisticated, but at each level they have, I think, this same rough equivalence. The result is a debate a neutral observer would have to score as a tie. Each side presents a plausible way of reading the evidence and each can plausibly reinterpret in their own favor the other side’s criticisms.
That is not to say that I think the arguments are in fact equivalent or the answers only a matter of perspective or prior commitment—I think religion has the better case, as you’d guess. But I also think from long years of reading apologetics and apologists high and low, and of writing apologetics myself, that we typically make a mistake with this kind of argument. The agnostic or atheist has not given us anything. Nothing at all. We shouldn’t claim he did.
A p.s., of sorts. A friend to whom I’d sent the link to Eco’s article wrote back, “I have hope for Mr. Eco. At least he knows the right questions. The ones I’m worried about don’t even know there are questions to be asked.” So do Christians often respond to any non-believing writer who criticizes secularism, like Eco, or argues as a serious moralist, like George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens.
I would like to agree with my friend, but I can’t, not with any confidence. In my observation of my secular friends and acquaintances, Eco’s position is one of the worst from which to move back to religious faith, because it is so comfortable. You satisfy any religious leanings you still have by defending it and remembering it fondly while simply accepting that you can’t believe it anymore.
The reasons you give are intellectual, and if the real reasons are moral, you are not going to examine or question them closely enough to find out. Religion is no longer a question for you, but a stage you’ve been through. You view it with nostalgia, the way you might view the clothes you wore at twenty, or affection, the way you might view an old uncle who writes the newspapers declaring that the world is flat.
You may ask the right questions, but you will not offer the right answers, defined as those that will bring you back to the religious faith. The ardent New Atheist who can barely avoid shouting when talking about God is more likely to convert, and the louder he shouts the closer to conversion he may be.
But that, of course, I sometimes worry, may be true of the ardent Christian apologist as well.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. For the works he quotes, see Eco’s God isn't big enough for some people and Lewis Campbell’s introduction to Jowett’s Scripture and Truth.