“To Confirm Atheist Prejudices”

Antony Beevor, in a new book review in today’s Guardian, discusses a history of Jerusalem by renowned scholar-author Simon Sebag Montefiore. In his opening, Beevor says that “The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story…one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices.”

I’m not sure what Beevor meant, since this idea is not mentioned again, although he does suggest that the book argues against certain popular fundamentalist ideas about Jerusalem’s fate being central to the arrival of the apocalypse. Maybe that is what is intended. We could then interpret the sentence as, “The story of Jerusalem likely confirms the absurdity of extremist thought about the endtimes.” If Richard Dawkins had written the review, we could have interpreted the sentence as, “The story of Jerusalem proves that religion is really bad.”

As is my wont, I reject both of those arguments, not necessarily as wrong but as weak compared to an even stronger one which is being kept in reserve. I haven’t read Sebag Montefiore’s book, but I can be fairly certain that it does “confirm atheist prejudices.” Why? Because scholarly histories of religious subjects presuppose natural, human explanations for religious phenomena, and therefore implicitly reject the divine.

Put it this way. If you were writing the history of Jerusalem, you would be faced with a decision: should you assume that one of the religions which exists in Jerusalem is indeed true, and based on true texts and events, or should you assume the skeptical mode of the historical scholar? Once this decision is made, the result is a foregone conclusion.

Thus, a Jewish scholar could conceivably have written a book vindicating the Jewish claim to the city, based on the actual truth of the Biblical texts. A Christian scholar could have written a book based on the assumed fact that Jesus was indeed God and that God therefore did indeed walk the earth in the city. A Muslim scholar could have written a book taking as historical fact that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the city.

By assuming none of these truths as a foundation, the mainstream secular scholar, like Simon Sebag Montefiore, immediately turns the tables. This is because it can then be assumed that religion is a human phenomenon, the product of human minds and foibles, a system whose creators so-called are not gods but groups of real people.

That starting point, coming before any description of actual religious views, is the real beginning of the road “to confirm” atheistic tendencies. For the atheist, agnostic, or generally unaligned non-believer, what happens next is that the natural explanations for religious belief – in Jerusalem’s case, tribal groups squabbling over a major city have transformed into religious sects squabbling over a major city – ultimately prove sufficient. Non-believers find it is possible and even logical to formulate a historical narrative for religious movements, figures, and ideas which does not include the presupposition that those religions are actually right.

Of course, religious scholars share in this assumption, too, about all the other faiths of the world. So, for instance, a Christian scholar who’s expert in Islam will not be caught admitting that the explanation for stories about Muhammad ascending into heaven is that Muhammad actually did do just that. It is only for one’s own faith that one maintains a blind spot.

This is why it is the tendency of all secular historical scholarship to be just that, to be implicitly or explicitly secular. This is why anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained spends hundreds of pages analyzing theories which purport to tell us why religion exists – after rejecting the “religion is true” argument in a matter of two or three sentences. And this is why Boyer’s book poses a greater threat to belief than anything Richard Dawkins could ever hope to write. “To confirm atheist prejudices,” or indeed to create a new agnostic where there had not been one before, the first step is simple: one must explain the human story without recourse to divine intervention.

It sounds like a tall order, but people like Simon Sebag Montefiore have been doing it for centuries.


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