When the City University of New York’s Graduate Center decided to convene last night’s session of its Great Issues Forum around the question, “What Are the Varieties of Unbelief?” they seem to have tried as best they could to avoid a New Atheist-style foodfight. The name itself gestures to the title of a 1964 book by Martin Marty, the great, level-headed historian of American religion. Moderating was Gustav Niebuhr, a journalist and scholar who comes with a mainline namesake and a new book about religious tolerance. In the unbelieving corner was Susan Jacoby, the journalist and author whom that very day Stephen Prothero in USA Today called a “gentler atheist,” together with philosopher Colin McGinn, who claimed not to find religion a particularly stimulating subject. The lone theist was Denys Turner of Yale, whose “ascetic” approach makes him so eager to “internalize” atheist critiques that there’s hardly anything left for him to argue about.
But despite its atmosphere of moderation and tolerance, the event found its way into the pugilism that characterizes today’s atheism-religion debates. Even though Richard Dawkins wasn’t in the room, and despite the fact that nobody who was had much nice to say about him, his name seemed to have been invoked more than God’s. This revealed just how much the varieties of unbelief today—when argued about in the public square, at least—define themselves mainly in terms of how and why they agree of disagree with Dawkins’s 2006 book The God Delusion.
Colin McGinn laid out the clearest set of “varieties”: agnosticism (undecided about God), anti-theism (opposed to belief in God), atheism (don’t believe in God), and post-theism (God is no longer a live issue). Jacoby, in homage to the 19th-century American orator Robert Ingersoll, argued in turn that the first three actually amount to the same thing—a reasonable denial that a God exists.
The fiercer argument, however, broke out between McGinn and Turner; despite Niebuhur’s welcome efforts to turn their attention back to the question at hand, they ventured into a familiar foundationalist dispute: is belief in God properly basic, placing the burden of proof on atheists, or should atheism be our starting point? Turner insisted that the God McGinn has in mind is a caricature, not the God of truly rigorous theology. To prove his point, he repeatedly stated his agreement with the bulk of the atheists’ convictions, including the coherence of science and the possibility of moral norms without God. The dispute got heated as they each went after the other’s straw men, though Niebuhr finally managed to break it up before any headway could be made.
Jacoby, who identified herself as the only non-philosopher of the three, had less abstract starting points. For her, secularism is fundamentally a way of thinking about the world in terms of human flourishing in this life. The two others agreed: secularism, as they put it, is a “methodology” and not a belief system. It can be practiced by theists and atheists alike. But Jacoby says that in recent years, after witnessing her partner’s decline into Alzheimer’s disease and eventual passing, she learned that atheism could be something more. It was, during that difficult time, “an animating principle involving reason and emotion.” She was deeply grateful not to have to think of his suffering as something ordained by a God, but as simply a happenstance of nature. For her, the problems of evil and suffering are central to all unbelief: “I think everything who stops believing in God stops believing because of that.”
At the end, Niebuhr asked the participants to recommend a book or two for further reading. McGinn, reminding us that this isn’t a subject he cares much about, halfheartedly mentioned Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, though admitting that he finds Dawkins boring. Jacoby said she would not recommend her “good friend” Dawkins, but instead Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza (also noted in Prothero’s USA Today piece). Turner, in turn, suggested the Oxford Dominican Herbert McCabe’s God Matters.
For somebody nobody likes much, Richard Dawkins came up constantly. At one point, McGinn even had a revelation—something he said he’d never thought about before—which was a nearly verbatim recitation of Dawkins’s oft-rehearsed reminder that even Christians are atheists about all the other gods, and that he’s going only one God further. They supposedly don’t like the silver-haired biologist, but it is hard to know what would have kept the panelists going without him to define themselves against. The varieties of unbelief may be richer and more sophisticated than Dawkins lets on, but in the absence of his extreme position, the others might never find expression.